There’s a reason Hodges Farm is one of the last farms within the city limits of Charlotte.
The Hodgeses, whose family goes back 200 years in this region, have always had a knack for reinventing themselves: selling cotton when the local mills called for it, then switching to dairy goods during the boom after World War II.
But in the 1990s, as farmers around them struggled to make even a meager living, called it quits and sold their land, Frank Hodges, the latest steward of the family’s fields, struggled for ways the farm could reinvent itself again.
He’s hoping agritourism – the business of inviting tourists to experience farm life – will be the answer.
Agritourism isn’t new. Farmers for years have opened their barns to the public, offering petting zoos, pumpkin patches and educational venues for school field trips. But what was offered then is chicken feed compared to what’s available today.
Farmers like Hodges have expanded the business to include everything from 5K mud runs to wedding receptions on their farms.
“I like to say we’ll do anything within reason,” said Hodges, who constantly brainstorms new agri-attractions but admits not every idea proves a winner. “We found out helicopters don’t work,” he said. “They scare the horses.”
Hodges has come up with plenty that does work, however.
On a recent sunny October afternoon, the farm – on Rocky River Road, near Reedy Creek Park – bustled with activity in every corner of its 200 acres.
In the pumpkin patch, a little girl struggled to lift a pumpkin twice her weight into a red wagon.
Yards away, past the 100-year-old farmhouse, a wedding planner put the finishing touches on a restored 1930s barn for an upcoming reception.
All the while, Hodges sat perched on his tractor, pulling a hay wagon full of schoolchildren across meadows and between rows of golden cornstalks past their prime.
Now the 11th generation of Hodgeses to work the land, the 62-year-old farmer plans for agritourism to make up 90 percent of the farm’s revenue in coming years. When asked why he’s never considered selling the prime piece of city real estate, he said he’s been offered millions but that it’s never been about making a huge profit. It’s more about sustaining a certain way of life.
“Look around,” he said, scanning the freshly churned fields, the old red barns and the 100-year-old pecan trees lining the perimeter. “I was born in 1952. Ain’t nothing changed. I’m sitting right here looking around, and this is 1952. Nothing’s changed in over 60 years.”
It has changed in other ways, however. Mixed with the whinnies of horses and whistles of songbirds is the electric ringtone of Hodges’ cellphone.
“Frank Hodges, Hodges family farm. What can I do for you?” said Hodges.
On the other end, an uptown dweller inquired about the farm’s attractions for the month, then asked for directions.
Trading a new business model for an old one also brings new problems. Past generations of Hodgeses never had to worry about liability insurance or the marketing strategies necessary to entice strangers to visit their property.
“I used to worry about rain,” said Hodges. “Now I worry about Facebook.”
Hodges said he hopes future events will include Civil War re-enactments, blacksmith and pottery classes and even folk-art and bluegrass festivals.
“I’m looking for any ideas at all,” he said. “If it’s fun and I can make a little bit of money, that’s my goal.”