Southern Belle Farm offers cut-your-own flowers as well as pumpkins in the fall. (Special Photo)
In 2004, the Carter family stood at a crossroads with Southern Belle farm, located on the outskirts of McDonough in Henry County. They had to choose either to sell the 330 acres of land to developers, as other farmers had done with their property during the real estate boom, or keep it in the family.
The Carters opted to stay the course, and they redoubled their efforts to make the farm profitable by trying a new strategy — agri-tourism.
Through agri-tourism, the family opens the farm to the public during certain times of the year for pick-your-own crops, educational tours for school groups and fall attractions.
This year, Southern Belle Farm is celebrating 75 years of operation, under the guidance of the Carter family, whose ties to the land go back even further. Jake Carter said his great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather farmed the land as sharecroppers in the late 1800s before they saved up enough money to actually buy it.
The farm began as a row-crop farm and then operated as dairy farm for most its tenure, said Carter. Carter said his father sold the dairy cows in 1986 and they continued to work the farm producing hay and beef cows. The family introduced agri-tourism in 2005.
Carter said the agri-tourism business component of the farm, which today also produces beef cattle, hay and produce, is a way to continue his family’s legacy of making a living off the land.
“It’s a great fit to continue that agricultural heritage,” he said. “We’re an actual working farm and we take pride in educating folks on agriculture and farming.”
Fall is the height of the agri-tourism business and at Southern Belle Farm Carter and his staff (he hires 70 to 80 seasonal workers, mostly teens, each year) are gearing up for the crowds.
For a flat fee, visitors can take advantage of a corn maze, corn cannon, jumping pillow, pedal cars and cow train, as well as watch daily piggy races and pet and feed farm animals. There’s also a pumpkin patch, a fresh cut flower patch, pumpkin painting stations, freshly popped caramel corn and other food.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary, Southern Belle is offering a $7.50 admission (instead of the usual $12) for Sept. 21 and 22, the opening weekend of the farm.
When the Christmas season arrives, Southern Belle sells Christmas trees and offers hay rides around the property.
The next busiest time of year is spring, said Carter, when berry picking time arrives. Pick-your-own strawberries, black berries and blue berries are available, and in spring 2014 the farm will offer peaches.
Berry season runs through mid-July, said Carter, and then all is quiet until the cycle starts again in September.
Carter said he thinks the reason his farm has succeeded with the agri-tourism is because his family makes a focused effort to blend both farming and tourism.
“What we continue to strive to do is to remain authentic. We’re still actively farming the ground, we’re still producing crops like we did 75 years ago. They’re different crops but it’s still farming and I think that’s what sets us apart from (others),” said Carter.
Carter said he’s always listening to the community for feedback about how to improve the agri-tourism at his farm.
“We’ve been blessed to have the community respond the way they have. We’ve been very thankful for the support the community has given us,” he said. “All the credit goes to them because without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do and share it with them.”
For more information, visit www.southernbellefarm.com.