By: Heather Condict(Guest Written for HuntingLife.com)
May 14, 2009
Tucked away down dirt roads and hidden among trees are some of Oklahoma’s favorite ways to unwind. People flock to cabins in the country where hunters spend the day walking with a buddy and a good bird dog.
Come evening, you may find them in comfortable lodges enjoying wild game and telling stories.
Outfitting is not a new business in Oklahoma, but it is presenting itself in new ways. Like farms, ranches and wineries across the state, outfitters are embracing the agritourism craze.
Outfitting businesses are a segment of the agritourism industry that provide hunting and fishing opportunities.
“The types of outfitters we consider to be agritourism businesses are those that offer meals, lodging and guided hunting,” said Abby Cash, director of Oklahoma Agritourism.
Agritourism describes everything from dude ranches and cattle drives to pumpkin patches and wineries where guests are invited to participate in the fun. In Oklahoma, a program has been developed to assist agricultural entrepreneurs.
The Oklahoma Agritourism Program is a joint venture of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. It was developed and supported by legislation in 2007 to stimulate economic growth in rural communities by promoting agritourism ventures.
Through the program, business owners have access to business plans, information on funding and marketing and a public listing to help get the word out. The program is free to anyone who owns an agritourism business.
“Oklahoma was on the front-end of this,” said Newley Hutchison, owner and operator of Chain Ranch, who serves as the representative of hunting and other wildlife-based experiences for the Agritourism Association board of directors.
“We weren’t the first, but the people down at the Capitol are doing a good job for our industry,” he said.
Sixty-three hunting ranches are listed in TravelOK.com’s agritourism section.
“Outfitting was a part of our initial agritourism industry,” Cash said. “It is one of the main pieces, and it’s a significant part of our inventory.”
Red Rock Ranch is an outfitter in Marland, Okla. They began by entertaining family, friends and business associates of the owner in 1983. The ranch became more commercial as the demand for this type of experience increased.
“In the corporate world a lot of people live in, they are looking to be provided a service that’s getting harder to come by,” said Bill Spires who has managed RRR for 26 years.
As for stimulating the local economy, RRR always tries to employ local people, Spires said. They have three housekeepers, a chef and four full-time guides. They also employ part-time and seasonal help. Supplies, such as feed for their 35 hunting dogs, are bought locally whenever possible, Spires said.
However, because the concept of agritourism is new, the exact economic impact on the local rural communities is unknown.
“We don’t know right now,” Cash said. “We are in the process of developing a way to evaluate that. We know agriculture is the state’s leading industry at $9 billion a year and tourism is third.”
Though Oklahoma outfitters are supported as a segment of agritourism, the list of obstacles they face is long. Fighting the anti-gun movement, buying ammunition and providing habitat when diesel and fertilizer are expensive are concerns for Spires.
“One of the biggest challenges outfitters perceive is the liability issue and knowing how to protect their assets,” Cash said.
Liability insurance is the No.1 issue that would hold someone back, Hutchison said.
“My biggest fear is losing the place. “It’s been in my family since 1893. I worry about being properly protected.”
So far, no outfitter in Oklahoma has lost their land due to a lawsuit, but they have lost the youth audience.
Another concern for the hunting industry is the decreasing number of minors participating, Cash said. That is one reason RRR has recently implemented its youth hunts.
“When the state started having the youth deer season we sent letters out,” Spires said.
“We invited the kid, but an adult had to come with them. We put them on a stand and let them hunt. We fed them lunch and showed them how to clean their own deer. Now we’re doing it with turkey hunts, too.
“One of the most important things for our future is getting young people involved and educated through hunter safety, 4-H, FFA and the Department of Agriculture,” Spires said.
Because the number of minors participating is decreasing, Cash said, in the future businesses may be more focused on conservation or birding efforts.
For anyone considering going into the outfitting business, Cash recommended starting small and determining what your customer base wants before making a large investment.
Experience may be a key to your success as well. Spires suggested working on an operation for someone else first. Not only will you see what works and what does not, but also you may make important contacts that can help later on. Outfitters seem to agree that as in every business, personality is a factor.
“You have got to be a people person,” Hutchison said. “You have to enjoy yourself and enjoy people.”
In the current economic climate, the future of any business is hard to predict, but outfitters in Oklahoma are hopeful.
“There are still guys with money who like to hunt and they are willing to spend it,” Hutchison said. “Long-term, there’s a lot of opportunity for this type of business in Oklahoma.”
Public awareness is important for these types of businesses, as well. That is not necessarily something they have always been good at. However, with the help of the Oklahoma Agritourism program, promotional and marketing efforts are made easier, Cash said.
“There are some neat places in the state that you’re not even aware of,” Spires said. “There are people in Stillwater who don’t know there is a quality outfitter so close by. We need to let people know we’re here.”
So, the next time you drive down an Oklahoma dirt road, picture yourself taking the time out of a hectic life to enjoy a weekend appreciating the scenery around you.
• Call as far ahead as possible to book your trip.
• Oklahoma’s weather is unpredictable so bring a variety of clothes.
• Only book hunts with outfitters who emphasize safety.
• Ask what is included in your package. You may be able to purchase a license or rent a gun on-site.
• Find out if you take your game when you leave so you can make arrangements.
• Check rules on hunter safety course requirements.
1.) Guest cabin at Red Rock Ranch
2.) Hunter orange provided by RRR
3.) View of the Arkansas River from the cabins at RRR
4.) Bill Spires of RRR