Survival by means of agritourism for South Jersey farmer

On a surprisingly mild, cloudless February morning, Jim Pope stands in front of a metal gate and whistles a lilting call down a long, narrow cluster of trees.

After a minute or so he spots them in the distance—two tall, gray-feathered figures darting in and out of visibility. After a few more whistles the two emus finally emerge and begin trotting in Pope’s direction, gathering speed and determination as they approach like a pair of Velociraptors.

“I originally had no interest in emus. Heard they could be real vicious,” says Pope, reaching into a sack of large feed and scattering it on the ground for the hungry birds. “But these two are relatively friendly.”

The birds are more than just a quirky curiosity of Pope’s—they’re an economic necessity. For the last five years, Jim and his wife Joan have increasingly relied on the growing trend of agritourism, the business of inviting the public onto farms for recreational enjoyment or education. The emus are just one example of the many living attractions and activities that now bring customers to Pope’s 10-acre namesake farm in Waterford, Camden County.

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“It’s become very important for us,” says Pope, 55. “We’re a bit out of the way and people need a reason to drive all the way out here to see us.”

When Popes’ Gardens opened in 1992, its success was due to its plants. Pope says the farm once brought in 95 percent of its revenue from growing and selling a staggering variety of perennials and annuals, as well as a respectable number of fruits, vegetables, shrubbery, and trees.

“I basically tried to grow everything that anybody would want,” says Pope, who graduated from the University of Delaware in 1978 with a degree in agriculture.

The situation started to change around 2007. That’s when Pope first began noticing the effects of a weakening economy and the toll it was taking on his business. For the first time in the garden’s history Pope says plant sales declined, adding, “it was a tap dance just trying to maintain our business.” It was then that he first started considering new ways of keeping the farm on its feet.

In the years that followed Jim and Joan added new features to their farm, and today, in addition to growing and selling plants, Popes’ offers a plethora of agritourism attractions. In the back is a yawning pasture where visitors can watch the grazing of Scottish highland cattle—furry, longhorned beasts that look like they stepped out of a prehistoric century—alpacas, Barbados black-belly sheep, chickens, pheasants, turkeys, and, of course, emus.

“I started raising these animals partly because I enjoyed it, but also because it gave the husbands something to do for 15 minutes while the wives wandered through the nursery and garden area,” says Pope. “Now a lot of people come just to see the animals. It’s a big part of our push toward agritourism.”

The Popes also raise and sell rabbits, chickens, and baby chicks, hold pony rides and horse demonstrations for children, and offer myriad classes in a wide variety of gardening techniques.

The Popes are not alone in embracing the agritourism trend. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture—the most recently available figures—322 farms in New Jersey offered agritourism options for visitors. The census also illustrates the growing profitability of the trend, pointing out that farms providing agritourism and recreational services generated an average income of $24,276 in 2007—an increase of 236 percent from 2002.

Moreover, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture claims agritourism generates close to $60 million a year in revenue for the state’s farmers. A 2006 study conducted by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University found that more than one-fifth of Garden State farms offered some type of agritourism options for visitors, and that 43 percent of New Jersey’s total farmland is associated with agritourism.

According to the study, a large percentage of agritourism-centric farms derive the majority of their income from these activities, which is not surprising when one considers the declining profitability of farming in the U.S. According to census figures, only 47 percent of U.S. farms reported positive returns in 2002, and a considerably lower proportion of New Jersey farms—just 38 percent—generated revenue gains.

“Farming’s not an easy industry, and development down here in South Jersey has also forced a lot of people out of it,” says Pope. “Smaller general farms that grow field crops like corn are pretty much a thing of the past in this area.”

Nonetheless, Popes’ Gardens continues moving forward, and Jim says he hopes to offer even more educational opportunities for visitors this spring.

“Sure, I would prefer to just be selling plants again,” says Pope. “But I would also prefer to stay in business.”

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