LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — There are rows upon rows of sunflowers and zinnias at Petite Anse Farm in New Iberia, but they’re not just meant to be seen. The hardy flowers suited to the heat of south Louisiana summers are there to be picked.
Farm owners and operators Andrew “Andy” Graycheck and his wife, Jennifer hand their visitors scissors and a black bucket, telling them about what species of plants they’ll find on the acres before them.
The visitors have come to fill the bucket with Autumn Beauty, plum sunflowers, Oklahoma White zinnia, baby’s breath and anything else growing on the property.
About 50 miles north, on the opposite end of Acadiana, folks are filling buckets with juicy blackberries and blueberries at Bien-Aime’ Farm in Church Point.
Between the chicken coops, rabbit runs and rows of fruits and vegetables stands an old tractor for kids to climb for photos. Others stand in line for snow-cones from the wooden shack where farm owners David and Katie Baird make their cane syrup.
“We try to make it an experience,” David Baird said. “Everywhere you walk on the farm it’s an experience. We want them to almost forget about everything else and just pick.”
These “you-pick” farms are part of a growing agritourism industry in southwest Louisiana and across the United States.
The U.S. Travel Association describes agritourism as a billion-dollar industry that has directly generated more than nine million jobs, and it’s still growing. The U.S. Census of Agriculture shows an increasing trend in agritourism and related recreational services like Bien-Aime’ and Petite Anse.
Andrew and Jennifer Graycheck turned their family’s New Iberia farm organic and began opening it seasonally for pick-your-own flowers (sunflowers and zinnias), photography sessions and field trips.
“It’s really cool that people can see where their food comes from and just being in nature,” Katie Baird said.
For the Bairds it started with a small, raised bed of bell peppers in their backyard in Arnaudville. A lot has changed over the last seven years. Near the end of 2020, they moved to about 13.5 acres in Church Point, right next to the Lewisburg water tower and began planting right away.
“We just got bit hard by the farming bug,” Katie said.
“We’re just learning as we go,” David added.
That learning takes place mostly through observation, trial and error, and the Bairds want to share their hands-on approach.
“Personally, I learned quick that you can buy all the books and read about farming, but nothing takes the place of actually putting your hands in the soil,” David said.
So they began offering you-pick berry days in June, inviting folks to do just as the name says. After signing up online, there were probably 70 adults, plus kids, on the farm that day, they estimate.
The experience gives as much to the Bairds as it does to the visitors. Katie likes the accountability of having people out to the farm.
“You can ask me at a market if we’re organic, but you also can come see for yourself,” she said.
The Graychecks have lived on land adjacent to Jennifer’s grandparents’ property in New Iberia since 2013. While working full-time as a landscape architect, Andy also put in work at home, sculpting the land with bulldozers, to moving dirt to create ponds to irrigate and build up the land to prevent flooding.
“Being a landscape architect I wanted something to be a steward of and to practice conservation,” he said.
The dirt work compacted the soil, and to reverse that they decided to plant sunflowers in early 2020. Sunflowers are known to pull heavy metals from the soil and to have deep roots that break up soil layers, regenerating the land.
“We did not have a vision of starting a pick-your-own farm,” Jennifer said. “We were just building our own homestead.”
Then in March they were at home for months, like everyone else, due to the governor’s executive order about COVID-19.
They decided to harvest their new crop of sunflowers as a family, bundling and selling them. People could come and pick up their bouquets without physical contact, and the business grew from there. They started the pick-your-own option in spring 2021.
“It didn’t start off as a business; it was not intended to be that,” Andy said. “It was a way to build community and brighten people’s day during such a hard time.”
Today they open the farm to visitors in May and June and then again in the fall. They’ve added new crops to the roster each year, most recently planting beebalm and wild mustard and then planning for pumpkins this fall.
“This has become just a labor of love,” Jennifer said. “It’s definitely all an experiment.”
Their visitors tell them how joyful they are to be outside among the flowers, even when it’s hot, and that the experience is therapeutic.
“That’s what it is for us, too,” Andy said. “This is too good to not share.”