Eight miles south of Conway, down U.S. 701 past Bear Swamp, Radd Dew’s Bar-B-Que Pit and a sign offering deer processing services, a dirt road leads to Thompson Farm.
The nearly 100-acre property is anchored by a farmhouse that dates back to 1825 and a general store that once served Middle Mill, a plant owned by 19th century lumber mogul Henry Buck.
There are no roller coasters, log flumes or carousels.
But the farm, according to state and local governments, is considered an amusement park, meaning the Thompsons must charge a 7.5 percent tax to those who want to enjoy their activities.
“That crushes anything that I try to do out here,” said Scott Thompson, whose family runs the farm. “That’s what needs to be changed. I can understand [taxes at] an amusement park in Myrtle Beach, but I shouldn’t be paying the same taxes on a farm in Bucksport as they have to pay at the rides in Myrtle Beach.”
The admission tax is just one challenge local farmers face as they try to capitalize on the growth of agritourism, a term that refers to rural business ventures such as corn mazes, pick-your-own produce, farm-to-table dinners and other activities and events that bring the non-farming public to the growers.
Statewide, the number of farms participating in agritourism rose from 376 in 2007 to 581 in 2012, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Despite the increasing popularity of these offerings, local farmers say some state and Horry County policies aren’t compatible with agritourism.
Strict zoning and building codes have been adopted for the tourism-dependent Grand Strand, and those regulations don’t leave flexibility for farm-related businesses, which serve fewer people in places far from the bustle of the beach.
“Quite frankly, the uses aren’t the same,” said Blake Lanford, an agent with Clemson Extension Service. “When you try to apply a code that’s designed for urban uses to rural areas, it doesn’t work too well. It’s very costly. Sometimes it’s so costly that it discourages the grower from doing the agritourism activity at all.”
A way to survive
Agritourism is intended to supplement farmers’ incomes, not replace crops and livestock.
“It’s kind of gravy,” Lanford said. “You’re showing off what you’re already doing.”
Thompson Farm got into agritourism about six years ago, mainly out of necessity. As the teeth of the Great Recession gnashed, the Thompsons needed another way to keep the farm running.
“We definitely had to diversify to make ends meet on this farm,” Thompson said.
But the family had a few advantages. Thompson’s father had been a teacher at Myrtle Beach High School and had worked in the entertainment business for years, running Go-Kart tracks, amusement rides and hotels.
“Tourism is in our blood,” Thompson said. “It just made sense out here because we had the tourism background and also had the educational background.”
While they’re familiar with seaside amusements, the farm’s activities aren’t the same thing.
The Thompsons host school groups for field trips. Children take home a pumpkin, homemade butter or some other farm item. They also get to see animals such as buffalo, cattle and goats.
Later this month, the Thompsons will host a farm-to-table dinner for 250 people, and on weekends in October the corn maze will be open to the public.
Two years ago, Thompson Farm began hosting weddings.
Today, agritourism accounts for about 40 percent of the farm’s revenues.
“I should have done it 20 years ago,” Thompson said. “It helps everything. It helps the whole farm.”
Overall, Thompson said, county officials have been helpful, despite the fact that Horry’s policies have created some hurdles for him.
“The main issue that we had with the county is those bathrooms out there,” he said. “If there’s a hurricane, we’ll all have to go in that bathroom because that’s the only building that’s rated county standards for a hurricane.”
Of course, he said, that’s never going to happen.
“We’re not going to be out here in a hurricane,” he said. “We’re not stupid. You don’t need to make these buildings hurricane proof.”
Thompson said rural counties that haven’t seen such rapid development tend to have policies that are more conducive to agritourism.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “You can go over to Williamsburg County and do anything you want to, but because of Myrtle Beach and the building boom that we’ve had, it’s a lot different over here.”
For Greg Hyman, the county’s policies were too much to bear.
Hyman owns a farm in the Conway area, but he sells wine at the Pee Dee State Farmers Market in Florence County.
Like Thompson, he said he has no grudge against county officials, but he insists policy changes are long overdue.
“You have to make sure that when you implement ordinances, codes, enforcement of any kind of law, that they’re broad,” he said. “It’s a learning process. I understand that. The county’s not perfect. They’re people just like we are. We learn every day.”
In the mid-2000s, Hyman tried to get the proper zoning for a winery and farm stand in Horry County. But when the property was rezoned, he found out the county had changed its policies and the new zoning required his facilities to meet commercial building codes.
For more than a year, he went through inspections. He couldn’t make it work. One of his buildings was more than 100 years old and it wasn’t financially feasible to pay for renovations to bring the structure up to code. There were also mandates for ramps and entrances, as well as for two dustless driveways — one for buses and another for cars.
“On a farm,” he said.
The final straw was when he received a warning for not having a permit to pick his grapes.
He remembers that moment well: “I said, ‘No problem. It’s over.’”
So Hyman laid off four workers and moved his business to Florence County.
“I live in Horry County,” he said. “I was born and raised in Horry County. Why is it so hard to do business in Horry County? … It’s not that the county is consciously trying to kill these businesses. It’s that the attitude and atmosphere of Horry County has always been driven by tourism.”
Although the county’s policies have frustrated him, Hyman said he doesn’t have a problem with rules.
“I make alcohol,” he said. “You cannot imagine how conscious I am of code enforcement, zoning, and laws and regulations. But when I can’t do business here, I’m just going to leave.”
While interest in agritourism has grown statewide, Horry County’s numbers remain flat. The county has more than 930 farms, according to the USDA, but just nine were participating in agritourism in 2012.
If the county’s policies aren’t changed, Hyman fears they will deter other farmers from pursuing new business opportunities.
“There’s a lot of people who would like to do agritourism and there’s money in agritourism,” he said. “But you’ve got to allow it.”
County considers changes
After years of hearing farmers’ concerns, county officials are trying to address them.
This month, the Horry County Planning Commission will hold its first workshop on the Natural Resources Element of the county’s comprehensive plan, a document that charts growth for a 20-year period.
Part of the plan is updated every five years and those changes include setting goals for the county.
County spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said the plan doesn’t contain any specific policy proposals, but serves as a guide for council members. A draft is expected to go before the full council early next year.
Leigh Wood, senior planner with the county, said Horry officials want to find ways to make the policies more flexible and promote agritourism.
“There’s a lot of farms in Horry County that want to be able to have people come and experience or see how they actually are doing the farming,” she said. “We need to help people have a better understanding about what will help those farms become more business like and actually be able to show off what we have in Horry County.”
Along with the county, state officials are also looking at ways to promote agritourism.
South Carolina lawmakers recently created a special position at the state Department of Agriculture to help market farm-based enterprises.
“It’s growing all over the country,” said Jackie Moore, the SCDA’s new director of agritourism. “I’ve talked to my neighboring states that have agritourism programs and they’re all just growing and growing because farmers are needing a different way to supplement their income and they’re inviting people on their farms.”
Moore, who was hired in the spring, said agritourism promotion has traditionally been a piecemeal effort in South Carolina.
In recent years, web-based initiatives such as the Pee Dee AgriTourism Passport and the Catawba region’s Ag + Art tour have sought to promote farm businesses in those communities. Until this year, however, there wasn’t a coordinated statewide effort.
“We have these pockets of people working with agritourism,” Moore said. “We just haven’t had a statewide program to help the farmers that are doing agritourism, of course, and to help the public find the farms.”
Since April, Moore has been trying to find the 581 farms noted in the 2012 USDA Census. So far, she’s identified 103, including six in Horry County.
“I don’t have any concrete data yet because I’m just getting my feet wet,” she said.
Her goal is to build an online database that the public can use when planning trips.
“It’s really to help the economy of South Carolina and the rural areas and our farmers,” she said.
Since she’s been in the new position, Moore said she hasn’t heard complaints about zoning and building codes. She has, however, gotten an earful about the admission tax.
“Right now, the biggest buzz word is the tax,” she said. “Most of them (farmers) didn’t know they had to charge admission tax.”
The statewide levy is 5 percent — Horry tacks on a 2.5 percent hospitality fee — though there are some exceptions.
For example, Moore said, the tax isn’t collected at the state fair.
“Excuse me, that’s a lot of revenue right there,” she said. “And a lot of the state fair is not agriculture. … I think the small farmer’s the one that should be exempt.”
South Carolina lags behind its neighbors in embracing agritourism.
In North Carolina, for example, nearly twice as many farmers participate in agritourism (1,135 in 2012) and the $17.6 million industry dwarfs South Carolina’s $5.5 million one, according to USDA records.
One reason the Tar Heel state has dominated its southern neighbor in this arena is because North Carolina has long used targeted web promotions to benefit the state’s farmers, said Sam Bellamy, whose family runs Indigo Farms. North Carolina’s online presence helps connect those interested in farms with specific destinations in their area.
“You can put it in front of people that you can’t normally,” Bellamy said, adding that many tourists like to sample the local flavors. “If I go somewhere, I like to taste the taste of the place. Horry County is more than just the beach. And it’s not that you’re trying to take away from the beach. You’re trying to give people the full hospitality, so to speak.”
Bellamy has seen the difference in the two states’ agritourism efforts firsthand. Indigo’s 200 acres straddle the state line, meaning Bellamy does business with governments on both sides of the border.
“One of the things about North Carolina that helps is they layer different aspects to get the agritourism there,” he said. “There are a lot of farms doing corn mazes and that kind of stuff and they’re able to tie those altogether.”
Bellamy first got into agritourism with a you-pick operation in the early 1980s. In 1987, school groups asked if they could tour the farm, so he began allowing big yellow buses to drive around his land.
Today he offers tours, hayrides and even hosts birthday parties.
While he’d like to see South Carolina do a better job of promoting small farms, Bellamy remains wary of too much government involvement. He’s not a fan of agritourism grant programs, which he said often funnel money to initiatives and events that are not directly tied to agriculture.
“Everybody gets real interested in it,” he said. “A lot of times it doesn’t really go to farmers.”
He’s also concerned about a concept called “agritainment.”
“I never liked that word,” Bellamy said. “When you have a farm and they start putting up things that aren’t really agricultural, they’re amusements. When you go there, it’s like a playground instead of a farm.”
If farms resemble amusement parks, he said, there’s no doubt they will always be taxed as such, cutting into the farmers’ earnings and making agritourism meaningless.
“That defeats the whole purpose of trying to help sustain a farm,” he said. “It defeats the whole purpose of trying to give people a taste of the farm, a connection to a farm.”