For Cliff Carley, Sept. 11, 2001, is a date of great personal significance unrelated to tragic events.
That's the day the construction company owner bought a pair of Rocky Mountain elk and began raising the large deer on his northern Hamilton County property near Atlanta.
Nearly five years later, Carley Elk Farm hosts Saturday tours for which visitors pay $5 to roam the rural acreage and help feed a herd that numbers about 50. On the way home, they can even stop by the nearby store on State Road 37 to purchase elk meat processed into burgers, brats or steaks.
Sales provide Carley, 37, and his family a bit of extra income. But for state and local tourism officials, the farm is part of a larger effort to reap the rewards of Indiana's rustic heritage through so-called agri-tourism.
"Obviously, agriculture is of huge importance to Indiana," said Brain Blackford, development director for the Indiana Office of Tourism. "We want to capitalize on the product we already have. If we can showcase it, that's all the better."
Nationally, revenue from nature and agricultural tourism has increased about 30 percent each year since 1997, according to Purdue University's Tourism and Hospitality Research Center.
That makes it the fastest-growing travel segment in the United States, and might explain why weekend travel is more popular than ever. Almost 30 percent of Americans have taken five or more weekend trips during the past year, said a survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association of America.
Further, 26 percent of those queried favored small-town destinations. With gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon, day tripping might be even more prevalent this summer.
County embraces concept
Indiana tourism officials certainly have taken note of the trend. The state received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year to conduct six regional workshops addressing agri-tourism opportunities. They might range from wineries and orchards to farmers' markets and historical farms.
While the industry still is in its infancy here, Hamilton County has emerged as a leader in the growing field.
The Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted its own workshop earlier this year and has produced its "Guide to Country Markets," highlighting rural activities.
"We have a lot of smaller communities-Arcadia, Atlanta and Sheridan-all of which are surrounded by farm fields," said Brenda Myers, executive director of the HCCVB. "The southern end is very urban, but the northern part of the county is still very entrenched in the agri-tourism industry."
The bureau even went so far as to hire a consultant to explore the full potential of agri-tourism in the county. Susan Haller, former executive director of the Virginia Soybean Association, moved to the metropolitan area two years ago when her husband, a native Hoosier, accepted a job with the Indiana Historical Society.
Haller served on Virginia's agri-business council and various other state agritourism organizations before founding Weather Vane Marketing, an agri-business marketing company.
She is spearheading the county's agritourism effort and took an inventory of all agricultural events and products that have the potential to attract tourists. They are listed in the brochure.
Haller said the term agri-tourism was coined in the late 1980s and is most prevalent along the coasts, especially in northern California's wine country. What works for vineyards (see story on Indiana's wine trails, page17A) can certainly translate to corn mazes, Haller said. Oddly, residential growth is a large contributor to success.
Massive housing tracts might be partly to blame for the erosion of farmland, but sprawling populations can spur positive results, she said.
"We are starting to see a lot of pressure from development, especially in central Indiana. When you see that, you have a market and the consumers for [agritourism]," Haller said. "Farm families are struggling to stay afloat in today's economy. It's a way for them to deal with that kind of pressure from development in a positive way."
Carley, who operates the elk farm, echoed her sentiments.
"The thing I like about Hamilton County is that I have a million people to draw off of 20 minutes from my house," he said. "People can come up and have a good time, and enjoy the farm."
Carley will open the farm to the public for free Sept. 9. Visitors can sample elk meat by purchasing a burger, chips and drink for $4. Elk tastes a lot like beef and contains less cholesterol than skinless chicken, Carley said.
Long on goals, short on funds
State officials recognize that agritourism efforts still are in the development stages. They hope to budget more money to help sow the seeds and are directing most of the money toward marketing. The Office of Tourism, for instance, plans to designate funds for more workshops.
And the Indiana Tourism Council, made up of members of the tourism and hospitality industries, continues to work on a plan of attack. Agri-tourism became a priority for the council after the General Assembly gave it two new seats in 2004.
First up was a survey completed in March 2005 to determine the scope of existing efforts and the potential for growth. The study included seven recommendations to maximize the state's agritourism opportunities. They are:
create a master plan to address marketing, development, education and outreach issues.
develop a Web site to market products.
form education and outreach program to develop an agri-tourism training and certification program.
assign responsibility of the master plan to an appointed director or coordinator.
identify strategies to strengthen statesponsored support for future development of the industry.
work closely with the General Assembly to identify impediments to development, and explore incentives to encourage investment.
form an agri-tourism cooperative.
With no real budget, little has been accomplished.
"The goals were primarily recommendations," said Blackford of the tourism department. "They were bold, big-picture things if we didn't have any limits on funds."
While much work remains, Phil Anderson, executive director of the Indiana Rural Development Council, welcomes the extra attention agriculture is receiving.
"We want rural communities to be great places to live, learn, work and play," Anderson said. "Part of that involves rural entrepreneurship."