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Agritourism expands pecan farm’s reach
By Kathy Gibbons

Driving through the countryside along State Highway 21 outside of Caldwell, Texas, visitors come upon an oasis of sorts.

Big signs that read “Welcome Center” mark the entry to a tree-lined drive that leads to the 500-acre Royalty Pecan Farm. The most visible part of Royalty’s commitment to agritourism, the center is a 3,500-square-foot showroom built in 2009 featuring all things pecan: unshelled, shelled, bulk, bagged, value-added items made in the on-site commercial kitchen, pies, cookies, books and more.

Open year-round, it’s quite a change from the much smaller seasonal farm stand Royalty used to operate. It’s all part of an agritourism strategy designed to assure longevity – and sell pecans.

“I wanted to do something that would make the farm last a little longer as a farm – to hopefully increase the longevity as an agricultural operation,” said Mike Adams, Royalty Pecan Farm’s owner. “We thought agritourism was the way to do it.”

Taking a page from wineries in Napa Valley, a dairy operation near Boston and an apple orchard down the road from Monticello in northern Virginia, to name a few, Adams said he and his staff, including orchard manager Andy Sherrod and Sherrod’s daughter, Rebekah Stallsworth, the welcome center’s manager, developed a multifaceted plan to put their agritourism aspirations into action. The plan is to bring the Royalty brand, including a “Pecans for Life” tag line, to the forefront.

“We chose to build our Welcome Center off the highway,” Adams said. “And we made a conscious decision to make it more of a destination experience, rather than a purchase experience.

“It’s all about not only a personal enjoyment experience, but what it takes to create a pecan. We want them to know where it comes from and how we grow it.”

Besides that, Sherrod said, agritourism was a good answer to the perennial question from those who come to buy pecans in the fall, “So what do you do the rest of the year?”

“Rather than just talk to them in the fall when they come to our store, we decided to show them,” Sherrod said.

That meant introducing formal tours on Saturdays.

“We would give impromptu tours if somebody came in and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to look around,'” Stallsworth said. “But we added tours as an official attraction in the fall of 2010.”

On the tours, visitors learn about pecan varieties, pollination and how the nuts grow (pecan trees produce every other year). They venture out into the pecan groves – Royalty has 13,000 trees – and visit the on-site processing facility where the crop is prepared for market and for shipping to a custom sheller.

“People generally are not educated or knowledgeable about the details of growing an agricultural crop,” Sherrod said.

The farm could offer the tours at no charge, but found that making them free left the public feeling they had no value. Instituting a $1 fee didn’t change things much. Now they charge $3, and find they sometimes have to add additional tours because the first ones fill up. Royalty also frequently hosts national and international visitors from nearby Texas A&M University. Tickets are available for advance purchase online.

Royalty also rolled out an annual Fall Festival in 2012 that attracts at least 1,000 people. It includes tours, activities for children, a 5-, 10- and 15-kilometer run and more. The farm also hosts weddings, receptions and other gatherings to “bring the public to the farm for an event that would expose them to what’s actually happening on a working farm,” Sharrod said.

Monthly wine tastings have been popular. Royalty was planning on offering tasting events for Texas-made olive oil this summer, pairing them with balsamic vinegars also sold on site.

Including a commercial kitchen in the Welcome Center meant Royalty could begin making value-added products.

“Besides the pecan pies, which are kind of a given, what the staff has done is develop our flavored pecans,” Sherrod said. “The pecan meats we grow ourselves have been value-added in some way – hot, some spicy, some sweet, some savory. Our goal was not to hide the pecan flavor but to enhance it.

“My wife had a lot to do with that. She would come up with the idea and our daughter would bake them. Then we hired a lady to come in and do different renditions of the same recipe. We’d all sample and give our critique.”

Today, Royalty offers around 14 value-added pecan products in its store and online. Internet sales have skyrocketed, so a 20-by-40 foot annex to the Welcome Center was added in 2013 to house mail-order fulfillment.

Where mail and Internet sales used to be about 25 percent, with 75 percent walk-in, Stallsworth said that both have increased dramatically.

“If you look at year-round totals, as far as just percentages, mail order was closer to 45 to 50 percent in 2009, but both have increased several hundred percent since,” Stallsworth said. “We’ve made a greater effort to make our website more prominent on Google. We’ve hosted a number of blog posts, and gotten much better with our key words and embedding pictures to bring more traffic.”

Now the farm is staffing for mail-order business year round, versus three months for retail. “We’re selling walk-in 12 months and mail-order 12 months,” Sherrod said.

Royalty also employs a part-time social media person and a full-time marketing staffer who also focuses on business and community outreach. A venue manager handles special events.

“Everything that we do here is geared toward pecan sales,” Sherrod said. “We’re not educating because we like education – we do – but it has to translate into more pecan sales, because that’s our commodity.

“We have a goal – and it’s a pretty audacious goal – to sell all of the pecans we grow here on the farm through our Welcome Center or through our own channels. We’re many years away from achieving that, but that’s our goal.”

One way to help accomplish that is to go international. The company is also negotiating to direct-sell pecans to a group from China.

Committing to agritourism has changed the way Royalty does business.

“I’ve been here 28 years and the first 22 years was production, and I love that, and the last eight have been this hybrid production-slash-agritourism,” Sherrod said. “It’s like two different businesses – you’ve got the production side and the public agritourism side.

“It’s been fun to blend the working farm aspect with the more public and open to the community. People are walking in and watching what we’re doing, basically.”

Adams is taking pecan marketing beyond Royalty. He’s president of the American Pecan Board, a relatively new trade association that aims to emulate successful efforts in the pistachio and almond industries to promote the health aspects of eating pecans.

Back in Caldwell, Royalty is doing its part to help spread the word.

“We’re farmers that got involved in the retail and agritourism business,” Adams said. “It’s been a fun journey.

“We’re not there yet. But we hope to get there.”

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