Northeast Georgia residents flock to Washington Farms to pick strawberries in the late spring and early summer and pumpkins in October. Many take time to wander through the corn maze on their annual fall trip.
“I decided I wanted to be a farmer, which I’ve never done before,” said John Washington, a University of Georgia graduate who owns Washington Farms.
His pick-your-own operations are so well established now that people who picked strawberries or pumpkins when they were kids now bring their own children to the farm. Group tours for children and adults are also offered year-round.
When Washington launched his business 18 years ago, agritourism was not formally recognized. Now, local officials want to formalize such endeavors in the county’s Unified Development Code (UDC) as section 336.08, Seasonal agricultural events.
This proposed amendment to Oconee County’s land use policy defines seasonal agricultural events as games, animal exhibitions, corn maze and “agritourism” activities. They can be held only once per season and only on properties zoned Agricultural (A-1). Any structures required will need permits from the county.
If commissioners approve the amendment, landowners who want to host seasonal agritourism events will need to apply to the planning department, which will pass the proposal along to the Board of Commissioners for final approval.
This is not the first time that the county has considered regulating agritourism, said Alan Theriault, county administrative officer. He says the topic has come up a number of times, specifically as it relates to the Farmland Protection program and the Board's desire to maintain green-space in the county. The county does not want to hinder this type of activity as it currently exists or could develop in the future, he said.
There is little doubt agritourism is a growing concern as landowners search for new ways to generate additional income from farm land. Washington says five years ago his farm had the only corn maze in the area, but now there are four mazes within a 30-minute drive.
When drafting the amendment, the Planning Department sought a way to permit farmers to host a slightly regulated yet flexible seasonal event; however, some fear the red tape created by the county will interfere with a profitable and growing business.
“We are family oriented and families have been coming out and making memories for years and years,” said Washington.
County planner Brad Callender says Oconee is “trying to get out in front of” a movement building in the state legislature, which would involve promoting agritourism across the state of Georgia.
“Farming is allowed by our ordinance for properties zoned A-1 and we have got plenty of farms in Oconee County, but there is really no avenue for them to do something like a festival or some type of event or host a school party for kids to go out and learn about farms,” Callender said.
The county needs to know in advance what kind of events are in the works so officials can plan for safety and traffic-related issues, he said, but there is no interest in interfering with pick-your-own operations, corn mazes, or other seasonal activities.
“We are providing parameters for them so when they want to do those events, they can,” said Callender.
The next Board of Commissioners business meeting will be held on Nov. 1. in the Oconee County Courthouse, room 203, at 7 p.m.
Do you think agritourism should be formally recognized in Oconee’s Unified Development Code?