LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) – There are rows of sunflowers and zinnias at Petite Anse Farm in New Iberia, but they’re not just meant to be seen. The hardy flowers adapted to the heat of southern Louisiana summers are here to be picked.

Farm owners and operators Andrew “Andy” Graycheck and his wife, Jennifer, hand visitors scissors and a black bucket, explaining what species of plants they will find on the acres ahead of them.

Visitors came to fill the bucket with fall beauty, plum sunflowers, white Oklahoma zinnia, baby’s breath and whatever grows on the property.

About 50 miles north, at the other end of Acadiana, people fill buckets with juicy blackberries and blueberries at Bien-Aime Farm in Church Point.

Between the chicken coops, rabbit pens and rows of fruit and vegetables stands an old tractor that kids can climb on to take pictures. Others line up for snow cones from the wooden shack where farm owners David and Katie Baird make their cane syrup.

“We try to make it an experiment,” David Baird said. “Wherever you walk on the farm is an experience. We want them to forget almost everything else and just choose.

These “your own way” farms are part of a growing agritourism industry in southwest Louisiana and across the United States.

The US Travel Association describes agritourism as a billion-dollar industry that has directly generated more than nine million jobs, and continues to grow. The US Census of Agriculture shows an upward trend in agritourism and related recreational services such as Bien-Aime’ and Petite Anse.

Andrew and Jennifer Graycheck transformed the family farm in New Iberia into organic farming and began opening it seasonally for U-pick flowers (sunflowers and zinnias), photography sessions and field trips.

“It’s really cool that people can see where their food comes from and just be in nature,” said Katie Baird.

For the Bairds, it all started with a small raised bed of peppers in their garden in Arnaudville. A lot has changed in the past seven years. Towards the end of 2020 they moved to approximately 13.5 acres in Church Point, right next to the Lewisburg Water Tower and immediately began planting.

“We’ve just been a little hard on the farming bug,” Katie said.

“We’re just learning as we go,” added David.

This learning happens mostly through observation, trial and error, and the Bairds want to share their hands-on approach.

“Personally, I quickly learned that you can buy all the books and read about farming, but there’s no substitute for putting your hands in the ground,” David said.

So they started offering berry picking days in June, inviting people to do as the name suggests. After registering online, there were probably 70 adults, plus children, at the farm that day, they estimate.

The experience gives the Bairds as much as the visitors. Katie loves the responsibility of having people on the farm.

“You can ask me at a market if we’re organic, but you can also come and see for yourself,” she said.

The Graychecks have lived on land adjacent to Jennifer’s grandparents’ property in New Iberia since 2013. While working full-time as a landscape architect, Andy has also worked at home, sculpting the land with bulldozers, moving land to create ponds for irrigation. and landscaping to avoid flooding.

“As a landscape architect, I wanted something to be a steward and to practice conservation,” he said.

Tillage has compacted the soil and to reverse this they decided to plant sunflowers in early 2020. Sunflowers are known to pull heavy metals from the soil and have deep roots that break up layers of soil , regenerating the earth.

“We had no intention of starting a pick-your-own farm,” Jennifer said. “We were just building our own farm.”

Then in March, they stayed home for months, like everyone else, due to the governor’s executive order regarding COVID-19.

They decided to harvest their new crop of sunflowers as a family, bundle them and sell them. People could pick up their bouquets without physical contact, and the business grew from there. They launched the pick-your-own option in the spring of 2021.

“It didn’t start as a business; it wasn’t supposed to be that,” Andy said. “It was a way to build community and brighten people’s day during such a difficult time.”

Today, they open the farm to visitors in May and June, and then again in the fall. They’ve added new crops to the list each year, most recently planting lemon balm and wild mustard, then planning pumpkins this fall.

“It just became a labor of love,” Jennifer said. “It’s definitely an experience.”

Their visitors tell them how happy they are to be outside among the flowers, even when it’s hot, and how therapeutic the experience is.

“That’s what it is for us too,” Andy said. “It’s too good not to share.”