CAPE GIRARDEAU — The clouds over Pioneer Orchards on a cool October morning don't bother owner Stan Beggs.
The busloads of schoolchildren that soon arrive bring a smile to Beggs. He enjoys watching youngsters' faces light up as they take part in his hayride, drink a cup of apple cider or eat one of the apples grown on his orchard.
Between 200 and 300 students visit the Jackson orchard on a typical day during the fall and 3,000 may attend during October, the orchard's busiest month.
"People are seeing the value of spending a day at a corn maze, picking apples in an orchard or enjoying an afternoon at their local winery," Beggs said. "Families are understanding they can drive less distances and enjoy quality time together at a very affordable price near their hometown rather than spending a lot more money hundreds of miles away."
While agritourism isn't new, the concept has only become popular in the last decade, said Dr. John Hagler, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
"It's not just the product but the experience that's a vital part of what we do," Hagler told a group during an MU Extension agritourism conference. Hagler said that it's time to take advantage of the increased attention the agritourism industry has received from consumers who prefer products from farmers markets over supermarkets.
One industry that has experienced significant growth since 2004 is the state's wineries. Five years ago, 52 wineries were operating in the state compared to 92 now, according to Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board.
Statewide, the industry generated about $701 million in 2007, the most recent year a figure is available.
"We've seen people venturing not just to Missouri's wineries but those from throughout the nation," Anderson said. "People can stay in a bed and breakfast or go biking across the state and top it off with a visit to a winery. It's a concept that is appealing to more and more people.
"From the agritourism aspect we've seen wineries take off because people are wanting more of a local product," Anderson said. "There's something about that connection to the soil that people seem to long for."
Keller Ford, general manager of River Ridge Winery in Commerce, said the appeal of purchasing a local product and the adventure of getting to a winery have made such destinations more popular. Ford said it is common to have local visitors and visitors from Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and other states.
"Nearly every winery is off the beaten path, so people have to pass through in what many instances is beautiful countryside to get to one," Ford said. "And every winery has its own unique personality. And I think when times are tough with money, instead of going to Gulf Shores or Colorado, people might opt to try a more economic-friendly option like a winery."
Nancy Hadler, new co-owner of Tower Rock Vineyard & Winery in Altenburg, said her out-of-town visitors have been from Indiana and Lake of the Ozarks since she reopened the winery Sept. 12. She believes the area is gaining a reputation as a destination for wine lovers.
"What's interesting is we're having customers visit when the winery was owned by the former owners but we're also getting many people who never came before," Hadler said. "People are looking for a relaxing afternoon, which we offer with our pond surrounded by the woods. It feels like you're getting away from it all.
"In 10 years our wineries have come a long way," she said. "Since we've nearly doubled in just five years I believe the future looks bright for our industry."
At the 10-acre Saline Valley Tree Farm near Perryville, owner Marty Buchheit is gearing up for a busy season of selling trees every weekend from the Friday after Thanksgiving through Christmas. For the past 25 years Buchheit has been selling his scotch, white and Virginia pines to visitors who travel from as far away as St. Louis and Hayti, Mo. Some are new customers, while others are those he sees year after year.
"What keeps them coming back is the experience of going out and cutting their own tree," Buchheit said. "In some instances families will pile in two to three cars and come out here. It's been a great way to attract tourism to my farm."
For the past 10 years Beggs Family Farms in Blodgett has held its annual family festival. Visitors from Southeast Missouri as well as those from Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee make the journey each year to enjoy the farm's corn maze, pumpkin patch, homemade fudge, glow-in-the-dark miniature golf course and wagon ride. At other times of the year, the farm sells watermelons.
Co-owner Donnie Beggs said the event — held each weekend in October for the public and Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for schoolchildren — brings in thousands of visitors to his farm. While they spend money, Beggs said the profits didn't come until about five years ago.
"You can't get in agritourism in this area and think in one or two years you'll make a bunch of money and be set for life," Beggs said. "If you want to get into it, you better be ready for the challenges that come with dealing with the public and be prepared to wait a few years before you see a time in profit."
Through the years, Beggs has added features to the festival such as the corn maze and the Phobia Farm.
"We figured it's important to have enough options for people to be entertained for five or six hours," Beggs said. "... Like other successful agritourism destinations, we try to focus on providing good, affordable family entertainment that appeals to a wide range, both young and old."
While the Christmas trees and corn mazes are attracting tourists to the Saline Valley and Beggs farms, a Stoddard County farmer is using ducks to bring in people from as far away as Georgia and West Virginia.
Ken Minton, who operates MoDucks.com and Minton Farms in Bernie, has provided seasonal leases and one-day guided duck hunting trips since 1999. Duck hunting takes place on 1,600 of the farm's 4,000 acres, with the remaining land used for growing corn, rice, wheat and beans.
"When you're getting people from 10 hours away you know you have a quality product," Minton said. "It not only gives people a good time but helps our economy.
"Lots of people come each year, and while they're here they'll spend money on food and lodging," Minton said. "That's just one direct result of agritourism — people helping out the local economy while having a good time."