It’s a place for “Agri-tainment”
If you have ever lived and worked on a farm in Alabama, you know the gratifying feeling of honest days of hard work, food grown on your own land and sleep that is sound. Even with the globalization of our economy and the undercutting of the American farm and farmer, there are plenty of folks left in Alabama who want today’s children to experience a taste of the wholesome farm life, so they will know where their food comes from and learn a little bit about a farmer’s work ethic.
Jim Bennett is one of those individuals who wanted to see children experience the joys of farm life he had as a boy. This desire led Bennett, with the help of his family and friends, to turn part of the family’s farm into an agri-tourism site called Bennett Farms.
"I tried to recreate some of the old ways of doing things and the educational aspects of farm life along with the entertaining aspect of farming," Bennett said. "I took a fully-working cattle barn and large hay barn to create a place for agri-tainment."
Located just south of I-20 in Heflin, Bennett currently caters to young, school-age groups with attractions like a hay maze, corn crib, hayrides, old-style cookhouse, pumpkin patches, sorghum syrup mill and an old country store selling lye soap, honey, sorghum syrup and baked goods. The children can play in a corn crib full of corn, pick and paint pumpkins from the field, go on a hay ride, watch a sorghum syrup mill in operation, and view different styles of cooking with wood from wood-burning stoves to cast iron wash pots over an open fire, or they can pet a variety of farm animals in the petting zoo.
Bennett Farms opened for business this past September, and I asked Jim what was the most rewarding part of this business.
"It happened on opening day when I was able to see the looks on the kids’ faces when they were getting to experience the farm," Bennett recalled. "The first school groups came from Faith Christian in Anniston and Ranburne Elementary School, and the kids’ excited faces made all my efforts worthwhile."
Bennett’s grandfather, Hugh Bennett, was a motivating factor in creating the agri-tourism business.
"Papa Hugh was very excited about the idea of Bennett Farms when I started talking about it in 2009 and had many ideas I have incorporated into the business," Bennett explained. "Unfortunately, he passed away in February 2010, but we have dedicated the business to him, and his ideas, work ethic and business sense continues to be my driving ambition."
Bennett, a fourth generation farmer on this property, said it makes him feel good to carry on a family tradition of farming.
"I love farming, and it gives me a sense of satisfaction to bring the public in on this so they can experience the wholesome side of farming."
The idea for Bennett Farms came to him in a dream before visiting a pumpkin patch with his young daughter, Avery, and wife, Lexi.
"I woke up during the night with the phrase, ‘If you plant it, they will come’ in my head," Bennett said. "We met our goal of opening in fall of 2010 even with the addition of our new son, Ty."
During the plowing, planting and construction of Bennett Farms, Bennett’s two-year-old daughter was always by his side.
"Avery has enjoyed being on the farm during the construction of this project as much as I have," Bennett said. "It doesn’t get any better than having your little girl ride on the tractor with you while plowing a new piece of ground and explaining what we are growing and building together."
In addition to the support from his wife, Lexi, Bennett has also had lots of hands-on help from his immediate family including his father, Thomas; mother, Gloria; sister, Anna; and brother, Ellis. The local community has also gotten involved with Bennett’s agri-tourism project.
"Many of our local farmers have offered to drive the tractors on hay rides or cook homestyle food for the kids," Bennett said. "My mother is a retired school teacher and my sister currently teaches, and they have been a big help in delivering the educational sessions to the kids."
Bennett said it takes a lot of hands working together to provide a seamless tour through the farm.
"Another Cleburne County resident, Tommy Cofield, is doing all the cooking on wood burning stoves and open fires," Bennett said. "He cooks apple pies, pig skins, tea cakes and other foods in cast iron wash pots over open fires. Some weekends we will have beans and greens in the wash pots."
Many people of all ages have been visiting the farm just to see the way the old style of farming was done and remember the past farm days.
"We are considering a day where we have beans, greens and bingo to target some of the older crowd who have shown an interest in coming out," Bennett added.
Many of the values Bennett learned from his grandfather are part of his business philosophy:
1) Continuous spiritual development (The Lord comes first and everything else will fall into place.)
2) Family (Build a family-friendly atmosphere.)
3) People (Our people are our greatest strength.)
4) Enjoyment of work (Customer comes first attitude will prevail.)
5) Facility (We want to provide a high-quality and safe facility.)
6) Employee mindset (Cleanliness, courtesy, cheerfulness will be our main objective.)
Bennett Farms will also be giving tours and selling Christmas trees through the month of December.
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.