Extra Revenue Through Agritourism

With the help of an innovative new program, producers explore additional income opportunities.

By Deborah Huso

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While meat prices may be up, ranchers know the run probably won’t last. Farming is often feast or famine.

That cyclical nature is one reason for a growing interest in new revenue streams for agricultural operations. It’s also why Texas A&M University has added agritourism, or ecotourism, operations to two of its research ranches, thereby providing a model for landowners and managers on how to successfully run them.

Long Acres Ranch, which occupies about 750 acres along the Brazos River in Fort Bend County, Texas, is part of the university’s AgriLife Extension program. The university has a six-year extendable contract to lease the land and is working to develop the ranch into an educational, research and agritourism site, offering everything from guided kayaking trips and bird-watching to hiking, hayrides, photo hunts and campfires.

Long Acres Program Coordinator James Kidda says scout troops have held programs on the property for four or five years, but Texas A&M and the Extension Service wanted to create a model for land and wildlife conservation in company with income-earning ecotourism initiatives. “Fort Bend County is one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S.,” says Kidda, “which means … cattle ranchers are starting to think about conservation.”

They’re also starting to think about the future of ranching in south Texas. Kidda points out that most Texas ranches were started by individuals, explaining: “Two or three generations down the road, kids have to leave the ranch to make a living, because the ranch can only support so much. Agritourism can provide a way to generate more income from the same property to support more family members staying on the land.”

Forty miles west of Corpus Christi, another Texas A&M initiative, La Copita Ranch, established in 1981, has ecotourism operations well under way. The 2,726-acre property earns income from grazing, calf and meat goat operations, and hunting leases, but has found over the years that erratic rainfall and drought make income uncertain.

Recently, La Copita began offering long weekend trips to groups for wildlife and bird-watching, flora and fauna education, stargazing, campfires and rustic overnight lodging. “We do about 20 trips averaging 20 people each year,” explains ranch manager David McKown. The ranch charges up to $85 per person for overnight adventures on the property.

“We try to see what people’s interests are and cater to that,” says McKown. “A lot of our business now is repeat.”

Will ecotourism fly as an alternative revenue source for ranchers even in more isolated places like south Texas? That remains to be seen.

“As far as we know, there’s nobody doing what we’re doing here,” says Kidda. “We’re set up to act as a guinea pig.”