How Forsyth County farmers are finding new ways to stay in business

Ben Lacina

(Forsyth County, GA) Whether it’s competing with corporate food giants, rising expenses, or anything in between, many farmers have been significantly affected by the changing world. Here’s how Forsyth County farmers are finding alternative methods to make ends meet.

As the number one state producer of peanuts, pecans, and blueberries, it’s no wonder Georgia’s largest industry is agriculture. According to the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, agriculture contributed $69.4 billion in output to Georgia’s $1.1 trillion economy in 2020.

Mounting pressure

But farming has shifted dramatically in the past decades. Technology has advanced to better optimize equipment and crop and livestock genetics that has made farming techniques much more productive.

This efficiency is best exemplified in the United States’ largest farms. While smaller, independent farms are more efficient as well, they are much more susceptible to issues such as rising property taxes and climate change. This has led small farmers to seek new sources of income and find creative ways to earn it.

Agritourism is a term that refers to any agriculturally based activity that brings in visitors to a farm. It includes anything from U-pick farm activities and pumpkin patches to corn mazes and petting zoos. Agritourism is important because it allows farmers to have alternative sources of income without having to pay hefty startup costs to expand operations on their farms.

“There's definitely an [incredible] pressure on independent farms,” said Daniel Remar, an associate professor in the University of Georgia’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. “You see long term landowners who are basically getting priced out because of development. That is a huge issue.”

This issue has become a reality for farmers across the nation, including Forsyth County’s Hannah Campbell Zapletal, locally known as Mrs. Hannah, owner of WildeWood farm. Zapletal has seen the rising expenses take a considerable toll on Forsyth County farms, even just right across the street from her own.

“Within the next year or two, it’ll be a subdivision which is a shame because it was a cow farm,” said Zapletal. “We breed subdivisions here. There are hardly any farms left in this county.”

Alternative income

Zapletal’s family has been farming for over 25 years and has made their living in agritourism. After beginning with strictly horseback riding, Zapletal eventually bought the land to WildeWood farm in 2019. Now her farm offers riding lessons, horse showings, and several multi-week summer camps for kids, among other activities.

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Hannah Zapletal helping a horseback riding session(Photo/Hannah Zapletal)

The benefits of agritourism reach farther than just the farms being visited. Attracting visitors to spend money on produce and activities provides additional revenue sources for local economies which drives development, especially in more rural areas.

Cheryl Smith, the Agritourism Manager at the Georgia Department of Agriculture, says agritourism provides an outlet for everyone to better understand the people and places that provide the food on your table.

“Agriculture touches everybody in this state. At least three times a day. When you eat, you are touching Georgia Agriculture,” said Smith. “To me, if you’re [visiting] an area and you want something local, you want to know those places… I see it as a way to connect farmers and producers with the consumers.”

How to know where to look

As more farmers turn to agritourism, more structures are being put in place to encourage visitors. One of these structures is a division of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, called Georgia Grown. It is a program designed to promote the success of Georgia farmers and producers both operationally and through marketing.

Georgia Grown members span across the state, one of those being Zapletal’s WildeWood farm. Georgia Grown has allowed her to advertise on billboards around Forsyth County which she says helps build name recognition and credibility.

“For us, it’s a way of inexpensive advertising,” Zapletal said. “The words I hate the most are ‘We didn’t even know you were there.’”

Other efforts to aid farmers in their operations and advertise their businesses are being made as well. UGA’s Cooperative Extension has programs that give consultation to farmers to help them grow their commodity crops more successfully, such as in pesticide safety education or soil and water testing services.

Destination marketing organizations (DMOs) work on a state and county level to promote their areas as attractive travel destinations. In doing so, these organizations help expose the local agritourism opportunities to potential visitors. Georgia’s statewide DMO is Explore Georgia.

These avenues of exposure are vital in allowing many farmers to diversify their businesses, but experts like Remar are optimistic for what the future of agritourism in Georgia holds.

“A lot of communities are starting to understand the value and the benefits of agritourism,” said Remar. “I think the future looks really good.”

If you have a news tip in Forsyth County, contact Ben Lacina at benjaminclacina@gmail.com

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Ben Lacina's writing experience allows him to tackle a myriad of subjects and stories. His background in science helps him use his writing experience to translate complicated topics into understandable content for a wide audience.

Athens, GA
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