ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Participants in Friday and Saturday’s agri-tourism meeting in Tampa looked at a new way to bring business to this rural economy.
“Accept it that there ain’t anybody else going to fix our problems for us, or tell us what to do,” said Remelle Farrar, director of the Texas Prairie Rivers Region Inc. and Canadian-Hemphill County Community Development.
“The question is whether we’re going to take the chance to be pioneers and entrepreneurs (like our ancestors), and join with our neighbors to do the things we can’t do on our own.”
Farrar said families of farmers and ranchers realized government subsidies and interference have contributed to the poor rural economy and dwindling farm population.
“This is not some big program telling you what to do,” she said. “We know what we complain about-that the government won’t leave it alone. As a group, we have everything we need and a heritage that’s the heart of the Great Plains.
“We help each other out. We raised that barn, built that house…brought in hay across the border for neighbors in a snowstorm.”
Farrar said it was all done because residents realized that if families were going to survive here, they needed like-minded neighbors.
She and Bob Rogers, area director for Texas Wildlife and Parks at Canadian, reviewed on Friday the agri-tourism success in Canadian that she first brought to Marion County attention at an August visit. Then they invited the crowd of more than 90 Marion County participants to pinpoint destinations and events for agri-tourists here.
By Saturday, Farrar and Rogers had local participants breaking into groups to design visits by potential tourists. They ended the event with an effort to define the counties that should join into a natural geographic area for promotion.
Farrar and Rogers continued to emphasize that participation is voluntary and on a income-generating basis. No landowner, they said, will ever have visitors to his land without his willing participation.
Farrar said many Texas ranchers have visitors providing them with income as part of tours. They see sights such as prairie chicken booming grounds with no disturbance to themselves or ranch operations.
By Saturday afternoon-two hours after the planned end of the meeting-the dozen or so Marion County residents who remained were trying to map out as many as 15 counties with a similar heritage and geography that might be asked to participate with Marion County in a Kansas agri-tourism area.
Kansas RCD personnel were guiding the discussion.
Participants for the two days included persons from neighboring Chase, Dickinson and McPherson counties.
The conference was held at the Tampa Senior Center under the umbrella of Flint Hills RCD with financial support of the Marion County Board of Commissioners and community groups such as the Tampa Community Association.
Participants said they were there to network tourism for everything from bed-and-breakfasts and horse trails to payment for normal farm activities such as cattle feeding.
Peggy Blackman, representing RCD, said a regional area for agri-tourism is being promoted by RCD, and the Kansas Department of Commerce is looking at the area as a pilot project to be followed by other areas in Kansas.
Blackman said Farrar will help with the project under the Prairie States Coalition.
Farrar said people here need to use the financial gain of agri-tourism to educate urban people, so “what we have here are things the rest of the world will care about, and help us preserve it.”
Farrar selected a young man in the crowd to illustrate that for every person like him there are 452,000 young persons in cities who have lost connection to the land, with no parents or grandparents with firsthand farm or ranch living.
Rogers said the potential for tourism destinations here is high, with sights such as the memorial at Pilsen for Father Kapaun “and the wildlife here is out of this world.”
Rogers said higher-income people are willing to spend money to experience Americana like they believe it to be in the remaining rural areas.
“They come to enjoy, behave themselves, spend their money, and leave taking a good feeling home with them,” he said.
He described tours such as a frog and toad tour, night tours to see stars and spider eyes shining from webs, bird watching and a windmill tour developed from visitors getting off hay-ride wagons to fish “mud puppies,” immature salamanders, from ponds.
“I tell you what,” Rogers said, “life for people in the cities is boring as mud-they’re hungry for what we have.”
Rogers said he is continually intrigued by the rural activities visitors want to participate in. They love a tour where five varieties of owls are called in, and another where stories are told around a campfire while eating s’mores.
One rancher said he wouldn’t shoot prairie dogs on his place anymore if people actually paid to come see them-and they did, adding thousands of dollars to his income, Rogers said.
One enthusiast even spent time calling prairie dogs out of holes with a flute, he said.
Farrar said none of this is “rocket science.” It’s only using the native hospitality that seems to go with the Great Plains region, she said.
When local participants were asked to come up with the best things for visitors to see in the county, they came up with a variety of things. Possibly the No. 1 unique thing they named was the trails.
There’s the Santa Fe Trail with remaining ruts, the site of the Durham crossing of the Cottonwood River and an Indian attack, and Lost Springs with the watercress introduced by the U.S. Cavalry. Marion County is the only place where the Santa Fe and Chisholm trails intersect.
Other things named were places such as Goessel as an example of “living history” with its Threshing Days, the national grassland park in Chase County, the immigrant heritage from Czechs, French and Volga Germans to Mennonites-to name only a few.
Farrar said the group needed to remember all the intersecting interests their insight showed, and take them into account to organize.
Rogers said he had noted that all places have “jewels” to show, and this area is a “jewel box” full of them, from stone buildings to Marion Reservoir.