Owasso farm owner Bill Jacobs didn't mind sharing his method. As a dozen other farmers stood around him, he demonstrated the trellis system that has made his blackberry business boom.
“I wish I'd have had it years ago,” Jacobs told the group. “I'd be a lot less tired and I'd have a lot more money in my bank account.”
On the other side of the trellis wires, Scott Dallas listened closely. Dallas is set to retire as an Oklahoma City fire investigator in a year and a half, and he's ready to expand his Christmas tree farm and pumpkin patch to a year-round venture by growing blackberries.
With that in mind, he set off June 28 on a daylong bus tour with about 30 other people to visit four tourist-oriented farms in northeast Oklahoma.
The tour, organized by Oklahoma Agritourism, was designed to teach farmers and ranchers how inviting the public to their farms can bring in extra income. The ultimate goal is economic development in rural areas, said Jamie Cummings, program administrator.
The group learned about tax codes, insurance and marketing — but also had fun tasting blueberries in Broken Arrow, peach fried pies in Porter and chardonel wine in Haskell.
Above all, the day was about networking: Shepherds ate lunch with aspiring petting zoo owners. Produce-growers exchanged tips for squashing squash bugs. Successful producers shared their failures, and no one hesitated to give a fellow farmer a helping hand.
Oklahoma Agritourism aims to help farmers and ranchers develop businesses that blend agriculture and tourism. The program is built on the idea that many Oklahomans, generations removed from any farm, would pay to get away from the daily grind and spend time outdoors.
To that end, the program helps farms add and market attractions like corn mazes, horseback riding and berry-picking.
The program is a joint effort of the state departments of agriculture and tourism and started five years ago with about 200 venues. It now promotes about 500 venues, including farms, ranches, country stays and wineries, Cummings said.
Bus tours, or “rolling workshops,” happen twice a year, covering a different part of the state each time, she said.
The group aboard the charter bus June 28 had the chance to be both farmers and tourists for the day, stopping first at Thunderbird Berry Farm in Broken Arrow. There, they met farm owner Don Hansen, who told them his basic business plan.
“The people come out, we give 'em a bucket, and they have the run of the whole place,” he said.
Before setting the group free to pick blueberries, Hansen told everyone the Thunderbird deal: If you pick three buckets of berries and give the farm two to sell, the third is free to take home.
Picking berries is hard work, he said, so he lets visitors choose which bucket they take for themselves. He can't believe the number of people who take him up on it, he said.
In the end, he doesn't have to pick a single berry.
The group learned from success stories — Thunderbird Berry Farm has seen record production this season — and from each other's struggles.
At a stop at Stone Bluff Cellars in Haskell, hospitality coordinator Dee Selby told the group that the vineyard had only produced enough grapes last year to make 12 cases of wine.
Kent Livesay, who grows peaches at Livesay Orchards in Porter, said the freeze two winters ago sent the pick-your-own part of his business plummeting.
The workshop brought several people on board to answer questions about all sorts of issues agritourism businesses face, from pesticides and soil to liability insurance and tax exemptions.
Kenda Woodburn, a horticulture educator for Oklahoma State University Extension Center, told the farmers to examine their resources closely before expanding their operations.
The university's Soil, Water and Forage Analytical Laboratory offers soil and water quality tests throughout the state. A soil test costs only $10, Woodburn said.
Becca Lasich, agritourism coordinator for eastern Oklahoma, urged the group to talk to Oklahoma Insurance Commissioner John Doak about the insurance problems farmers face.
For example, she said, there is no cap on liability insurance, so companies charge high rates so farmers are prepared for the worst. Other types of insurance can be inconsistent across the state.
Scott Dallas, of Frontier Farm near Kingfisher, exchanged business cards with Neal Woods, who already grows blackberries. Lisa Piccolo, of Pawnee, who plans to open a teaching farm for children, discussed her vision with lunchmates from Shepherd's Cross.
And when Woodburn shared her tips for getting rid of squash bugs, the rest of the travelers shouted out their own methods.
By the time the bus left its final stop at Owasso Christmas Tree and Berry Farm, farmers had connections, methods and problem-solving tactics to take home.
Oklahoma Agritourism hosts bus tours twice a year. Registration is open to the public. For more information, go to www.oklahomaagritourism.com or contact Becca Lasich at 488-7532 or email@example.com.