Apr 7, 2007
Agritainment Requires Patience, Personality And People Skills

Before you decide to specialize in agritainment, you need to ask yourself one question: Do I have the personality for it?

Patience and self-control are the two most important qualities you need when dealing with the public. Not all farmers have those qualities, according to John Washington, who runs Washington Farms in Georgia with his wife, Donna.

“You’re gonna deal with some strange folks,” John said during a presentation he gave at the Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference in Savannah, Ga.

He should know. Washington Farms has been open to the public for years, and John has witnessed more than his share of illogical behavior from customers – from canceled school tours to people who never can figure out where to park to outright theft of farm property.

Of course, agritainment isn’t all bad, or they wouldn’t be doing it. They’ve met some wonderful people in their community and have had more opportunities to share their faith, John said.

Washington Farms has two locations, one in the Athens/Watkinsville area and one in Loganville. The farms specialize in strawberries, blackberries and pumpkins. There’s an 8.5-acre corn maze, hayrides, picnic areas and plenty of other activities, according to www.washingtonfarms.net.

Running an agritainment operation and running a farm require two completely different skill sets and mindsets. For example, when the public visits your farm, your privacy is gone. You also have to hire a different kind of employee: a people person.

You can’t treat your new employee – say, a 16-year-old girl – the same way you would treat an old farmhand. She wouldn’t last long. If she is friendly on the phone, always has a smile for customers, knows how to run a Web site, printer and make brochures – then you really don’t want to lose her. Marketing skills are as essential as the know-how to grow crops, John said.

“Everything we do, we try to cross-market,” he said. “In spring, we talk about pumpkins. In fall, we talk about strawberries.”

The kind of employees who fit in are usually high school and college kids, but scheduling them is a nightmare because they’re always coming and going. New employees will be handling cash, often in a shed or field where you’re picking fruit or selling tickets to the farm, so it’s difficult to know what’s being sold and how much cash should be in the cash box, he said.

Speaking of scheduling nightmares, dealing with school tours can be a real test of patience. Groups often show up late (especially home-school kids) or not at all, and some don’t bother to call the farm and cancel. When they do show up, the kids (especially private school and church groups) aren’t always well behaved.

John has learned one thing when it comes to school groups that show up late: If you have to cut something out of the tour, don’t cut out the hayride. That’s something everyone is expecting.

Washington Farms is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

“Open when the public wants to come out, not when it’s convenient for you,” he said.

Liability insurance can be tricky. Not all farm insurance companies are designed for agritainment, he said. When you do find insurance, you’re probably going to pay thousands of dollars a year for it.

Local regulations aren’t always designed with agritainment in mind, but you can find creative ways to get around them. For example, John can only put a 4-foot by 4-foot sign in front of his farm. However, he can put large signs on his tractors, which he just happens to park in front of the farm, right next to the road.

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