From Cattle to Concessions: The Journey of Donnell Century Farm into Agritourism
Where Heritage Meets Innovation
Historic charm and modern amenities combine for fun-filled days at Donnell Century Farm in Jackson, Tennessee. A family-run business for over seven generations, there’s a long and rich heritage behind the farm. Yet, this entrepreneurial family is now building a promising future in the realm of agritourism. Reasonably priced and local, farms are becoming agritourism destinations for families and friends to enjoy recreation and entertainment. More than just building a business, this family farm demonstrates how to build community.
A Family Farming Legacy
Settled in 1835 by founder, John Donnell, Donnell Century Farm began as a cattle farm, which is still in operation today. It was kept in the family for generations with current owner, Andrew Donnell now leading the business. Andrew grew up in farming, and it was his mother, Rose Ann and father, Billy who initially introduced the agritourism concept. As Andrew shared, a local newspaper was doing a story about the farm and Rose Ann said, “I wish the kids in the community could experience learning about agriculture and farm life.” She was quoted in the published article and soon schools started contacting her about doing field trips. The school field trips were a first step into agritourism for the farm. Then the opportunity in the community opened for the farm to start doing a corn maze and pumpkin patch in the fall, which was a huge success. It has since expanded operations to include a spring Easter egg hunt, baby animal festival, flower festival, photos with Santa for Christmas, a butcher shop, and a year-round farmer’s market.
The Role of Fun Foods
The Donnell family was also active in the fairs for over 50 years. As you may imagine, they enjoyed the concession foods that were part of the fair experience. As a result, Rose Ann was inspired to include concession foods on the farm too! They are now best known for their signature burgers, kettle corn, and fresh lemonade. And they’re committed to growing their menu each season with new additions as well.
Andrew emphasized the importance of food at Donnell Century Farm, “It is 10-plus minutes from the farm to any food location. If guests have to leave to eat, they’re not coming back. We want them to stay.” Investing in their food operations has been a priority. The farm started with one central area for food and has since expanded to multiple food and drink locations to keep up with demand.
- The Main Kitchen is where they sell, cook, and serve burgers, Memphis style pork BBQ, chicken tenders, loaded nachos, and loaded fries.
- The Sweet Shop is home for kettle corn, funnel cakes, cotton candy, slushes, ice cream, caramel apples, fudge, and donuts.
- The Drink Trailer is the refreshment area serving up Sno-Kones®, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and slush-shakies (part frozen slush, part ice cream).
- Last, the Dog House will be a new addition with homemade brats, polish sausage, and corn dogs.
The outlook for selling food on farms is significant. Andrew shared that they’ve more than doubled their gross revenue with food. In fact, he feels that food is not only a good source of revenue, but when done well it has the potential to be number one, even outpacing admission charges.
The Community of Agritourism
Andrew stresses the importance of community in agritourism. “It’s been a blessing. There’s a genuine desire to truly want to help other people. It’s about helping each other succeed,” he states. He credits groups like the Tennessee Agritourism Association and the Maze Group for helping Donnell Century Farm make the transition from a traditional farm to agritourism.
That community extends across the country. Andrew shared the story of a fellow farmer in Mississippi who was resistant at first to introducing food at his farm. Then he decided to buy a slushie machine. After just one weekend, he bought another. And after two weekends, he bought two more just to keep up with the demand.
Another valuable part of the Donnell Century Farm community is Gold Medal. Andrew commented, “Gold Medal is one of our top vendors. The more I talk to my rep, the more ideas I get. I see the opportunities for Gold Medal to make us money. It’s really a no brainer. If you’ve got the people attending, you can make money with Gold Medal.”
His advice to other farms considering concession foods is just do it! “Find someone on your team that has attention to detail, likes foods, and can watch waste. Look at the profitability of items and go after what people want. Invest in quality equipment. Make it your own and then expand and grow,” he advises.
Running a family business that has over 188 years of experience means a lot to Andrew. And while he wants to be successful financially, there’s another measure of success that he views as critical.
“It’s about leaving a legacy. We want more families to get involved. This farm is a place to turn off your phones, interact with each other, and make memories,” he shared.
Focused on family, food, farm, and fun, Donnell Century Farm is well-positioned to bring the fun of farming to future generations.
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