by Emily Carey
Nestled in the hills of Schoharie County, guarded by a herd of working dogs, lives the Davis family, who own and operate Empty Pockets Ranch. Growing rapidly, this farm has expanded from only 12 chickens to a herd of milking sheep to a fully operational and continuously evolving agritourism venue. Operating on the principle of providing the “farm experience,” Empty Pockets Ranch is navigating its way through agritourism.
In 2017, Lori Davis started with just a small flock of laying chickens and an interest in food systems. Under the advice and guidance of her college advisor, Jason Evans, her interest turned to sheep. After purchasing several dairy sheep, Davis tried her hand at making soaps and lotions which helped propel Empty Pockets Ranch into the agritourism industry.
The USDA defines agritourism as “a form of commercial enterprise that links agricultural production and/or processing with tourism in order to attract visitors onto a farm, ranch or other agricultural business for the purposes of entertaining and/or educating the visitors and generating income for the farm, ranch or business owner.”
Agritourism is quickly becoming a popular source of income for farms that are able to diversify their operations and attract the public to experience what life on the farm is like.
A guide created by Jim Ochterski and Monika Roth for Cornell Cooperative Extension, “Getting Started in Agritourism,” noted that “agritourism allows farmers to capture the dollars consumers spend on food as well as some of the money they spend on entertainment and recreation each year. In general, consumers spend seven times as much on entertainment than food.”
Learning early in the venture how important growth and diversification is to creating a popular agritourism farm, Empty Pockets Ranch has a variety of attractions and sources of income in their operation.
“We’re moving more towards a destination farm more than anything… What brings people here is things to do, things to see – the farm experience,” Davis said.
The ranch has grown tremendously in its four years of operation and now offers birthday parties, community group farm tours, paint and sip events, harvest hosting, photography, and sunflower and pumpkin U-picks in addition to a store, markets and fairs that are hosted on site.
“I don’t recall ever sitting down and deciding ‘This is what I’m going to do’ – besides the dairy sheep things,” Davis recalled, reminiscing about the start of the business. “And everything from there on out was experimental. It’s like let’s try this and see if this works. If it doesn’t work, I cut it out… But it’s kind of just for me. I’m open minded. I’ll try something new. If there’s the slightest inclination that it’ll work, I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s give it a try and see if it sticks.’”
Community plays a large role in the way the ranch is operated. “As a veteran family, we believe in the importance of unity and community. We also know how difficult it can be at times when we feel overwhelmed and out of place,” the Empty Pockets Ranch website reads.
The Veterans’ Corner is a community garden and peer-led equine experience opportunity for the family to share comfort and a sense of purpose with other veteran families. This space helps improve physical health, provide relaxation and stress relief, along with boosting mental and emotional well-being.
The Schoharie Valley is full of farms that create and sell a variety of agricultural products. Empty Pockets Ranch has found a way to work with these other producers in a way that benefits everyone involved.
The garage worked perfectly to be converted into a farm store. The store hosts a variety of locally sourced food products as well as other home, beauty and gift items, including soap that Davis makes from the sheep milk from the ranch. Through this store, many local farms are able to sell their products and tap into the agritourism market that Empty Pockets Farm is creating.
“Don’t worry too much about your competition,” Davis advised. “At this point, instead of worrying so much about what my competitors are doing, I worry more about what I’m doing and what can I do that will be different than the guy down the road and what can I do to help the farm that I work with. What can we do to be different from other places in the county?”
Selling the farm experience and surviving off agritourism means that Davis is constantly looking for ways to find what’s missing in her operation and how to meet the need in the community for different attractions.
“You have to be open to do other things … Don’t focus too hard on other things because you may be passing up on opportunities you didn’t know were there,” Davis advised.
“People don’t want to farm anymore,” she added. The traditional ag industry has become a very volatile market, Davis feels, which is why she is choosing to go into agritourism rather than traditional production. She said that “at least with tourism you can plan. There’s a lot more security with that. People are always going to want to get outside, people are always going to want to see animals.”
Davis believes that to be viable, her farm truly needs agritourism. “Everything is pretty much designed against the small farmer in this day and age. To enter into anything is super expensive,” she said.
Although she’s not facing the traditional challenges of large crop or animal production farms, there are still many expenses, regulations and governmental concerns that agritourism farms face.
“You’ll hear all day long that there’s all these grants available for women farmers, veteran farmers, startup farms. And it all sounds lovely; however, finding access to these grants is beyond difficult. The amount of research you have to do is very time consuming,” Davis said.
However, she also noted how helpful it was for her to start small rather than just throwing herself into a large operation.
“Start with reasonable expectations,” Davis said. “I started with 12 chickens. If I had to just jump into this three years ago, I’d have no idea what I was doing and it would be a disaster.”
Working with CCE offices, grant writers and the NYS Department of Ag and Markets, as well as regular conversations with the Department of Health and her building inspector, helped Davis navigate through financial considerations as well as keep the business open over the past year.
“Family owned. Family operated. Family loved.” These principles drive this agritourism business. Learn more about Empty Pockets Farm on Facebook or at emptypocketsfarmny.com.