Proactive Approach: Agritourism Perfect Platform to Share Sustainable Practices

By Barb Baylor Anderson • From Summer 2018 American Soybean Magazine

Stewart McGill (right) pictured with his wife, Kasey, is one of four family partners with Tate Farms. Photo courtesy of Tate Farms

Tate Farms has been working the red clay soils of the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama for more than 100 years. But it is only recently that the farm has had to share roads and field borders with nearby Huntsville’s subdivision sprawl. Rather than ignore the evolution, Mike, Steve and Jeff Tate and Steve’s son-in-law Stewart McGill have taken a proactive approach to coexistence.

“We farm in neighborhoods where millennials are buying starter homes. These are people who did not have grandparents on the farm,” McGill said. “We want to become their farm connection. It is our responsibility to educate them so we can continue to farm.”

Since the late 1990s, Tate Farms (tatefarmsal.com) has offered education tours for six weeks in the fall. They receive about 20 classes per day of students during that time. The business has grown since 1996 from 15 to 80 acres of pumpkins and gourds. The farm also welcomes families during that six weeks–some 75,000 visitors–for hayrides and other activities. The farm offers picnic areas, restaurants and shopping. Out of season, the area is a rental facility.

“We wanted to acquaint school children with the rural lifestyle and promote agriculture, so they could see how food is grown and how cotton begins as a plant,” McGill said. “What we’ve learned is that agritourism is the best platform farmers have to communicate with the public. People pay to visit our farm, and that makes them more receptive listeners. Our 168 employees at any given time are available to engage with customers and answer their questions.”

In addition to pumpkins, Tate Farms has 6,000 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat and cotton. For the last 20 years, the farm has been 100 percent no-till. Irrigation began in 1988 with 19 center pivot systems covering 1,800 acres. Subsurface drip irrigation was added in 2004.

“It is challenging to be sustainable. We have residue issues with the high yield, irrigated environment. Residue affects fieldwork timing since it keeps the ground cool and wet longer,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the most important thing we do is take care of our land.”

Water and equipment use generate the most visitor questions. McGill said many people assume the farm takes water for irrigation away from water for their homes.

“We explain how Alabama is fortunate to have many rivers that flow to the Gulf of Mexico, and that surface water used for irrigation is abundant,” he said. “We also explain there is no reason to fear our sprayers. Many people think they are personally at risk when we spray.”

McGill notes agritourism can be profitable but requires a mindset change. “It can wear you out. You must always be ready. We can’t be in the lane fixing a flat when this may be the only 45 minutes someone spends on a farm. We want them to have a good impression,” he said. “We love what we do. This can be successful for others passionate about sharing their farms.”