Farmers and ranchers dabble in ‘show biz’

STAFF & WIRE REPORTS

His family has spent generations farming. He has been seeding and reaping all his life. And Jim Anderson can’t quite get over the fact that now he is in the entertainment business.
“They never would have imagined,” he said of his father and uncle, who bought their 200-acre farm outside Erie, Colo., in 1958.
Anderson, 49, was tramping through his corn field, which is more prop than crop. In fact, almost everything at Anderson Farms is more prop than utility. From the haunted corn maze to the pick-your-own pumpkin patch, and from the goat feeding station to the aloof llamas and barnyard classroom, Anderson’s operation is tapping a growing yen among today’s urbanites to reconnect with their rural roots.
“We call it agritainment,” Anderson said.
And it’s big business.
Tens of thousands of school kids, parents and families visit farms like Anderson’s each year. They are part of a growing number of tourists who visit farmers’ markets each weekend. They tour wineries. They hire ranchers to take them hunting on their land. They ride with real cowpokes. They nosh barbecue from chuck wagons. They are “agritourists,” and they are changing the world’s oldest industry.
In the Clovis area, rancher Stanley Pierce has supplied horses and livestock to various movie companies, and the Lee Ross Hammond family often rents out their ranch’s chuckwagon and serves special parties and events.
“We haven’t supplied any in the last year or so,” said Pierce, who has even played minor roles in some of the films. “They’re doing most of the movies now in California instead of coming out here on location. We have done some one-day shoots over at White Sands, but that’s all.”
Pierce has served as horse wrangler for such major films as Billy Crystal’s “City Slickers” and Emilio Estevez’s “Young Guns” series.
In the summer of 2001, the Hammonds’ ranch provided an old-fashioned chuckwagon breakfast for the Air Force’s elite demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, when they visited the area to perform in a Cannon Air Force Base air show.
The Thunderbirds even joined with city officials in singing “Happy Birthday” to Lee Ross Hammond after the breakfast.
“It’s not everybody who gets the Thunderbirds to come to their birthday party,” he quipped. “They asked us to bring the chuckwagon here. We’ve had it in operation at the ranch. We use it everytime we brand. It’s a working chuckwagon.”
In August of that year, the chuckwagon served a complete barbecue dinner in honor of Brig. Gen. Ed Tatum’s retirement as a judge advocate general officer from the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
In Colorado, agritourism has united two of the state’s most powerful industries, the $7 billion tourism industry and the $5.2 billion agriculture industry.
“This is something the public is ready for,” says Anderson, who farms his grandfather’s 800 acres just north of his father’s homestead farm. “I think of us as preserving a cultural history.”
The number of corn mazes in Colorado has climbed to at least six in the past few years. Pumpkin patches across the state team with pickers, each paying more than double the cost of a grocery pumpkin for the thrill of plucking their own gourd.
By hosting visitors, farmers are able to cut some of their losses. Agriculture has suffered in recent years due, in part, to pricing pressure from other countries and drought.
In 1997, Colorado’s 29,000 farms and ranches on 31.8 million acres exported $923 million in goods and services and indirectly employed 86,000. Four years later, there were 105,000 agriculturally related jobs in Colorado, the total farm and ranchland acreage had fallen, and the state exported $869 million in goods and services.
Aside from extra revenue, agritourism has helped keep farmers and ranchers out in their fields.
“The movement has been people moving off the farm to find work. This is them finding creative ways to stay on their land,” said Dawn Thilmany, professor of agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University. “Now they can bring their marketing, the creative financial energy they were giving to other business back to their own farm.”
The first dude ranch opened its corral to visitors in Hot Sulphur Springs, Colo., in 1868. Back then, struggling ranch hands and cowboys found work by hauling visiting Denverites through the woods on fishing and hunting trips.
Today, the dude-ranch business is more about tourism than agriculture because few working ranches host visitors. Most of Colorado’s 40-plus dude ranches pamper paying guests with luxurious meals and guided romps through the mountains.
CNJ senior writer Gary Mitchell and The Associated Press contributed to this report.