Alabama’s Black Belt Cattle Farm Welcomes Birdwatchers and Ecotourism
The Joe family has farmed 200 acres of land in Alabama’s black belt for three generations, first as a vegetable farm before moving on to herding Black Angus cattle. The family has deep roots in this rich soil near the town of Newbern, and Christopher Joe, 37, doesn’t want that to change.
But Joe also recognizes that farm life isn’t everyone’s life, and some sort of change could be on the horizon as today’s cattle operation is run primarily by his father, Cornelius Joe, a schoolteacher. in retired agro-industry. So, a few years ago, Chris Joe started looking for ways to diversify the family farm.
The plan that emerged – offering birding tours on the property – surprised Joe himself. He was skeptical if it would spark any interest, but it turned out to be an idea that quickly caught on. Joe established Connection with Birds and Nature Tours LLC and staged their first tour in February 2019. Three months later, 130 people showed up for a one-day outing.
“I didn’t think people would pay to do this,” Joe says. “I knew people who were birdwatching, but I just thought they were going to a park or walking around and looking for birds. But people really like these kinds of excursions.
Indeed, according to a 2017 report by the Outdoor Industry Association, more than $30 billion is spent annually on wildlife viewing in the United States, with the majority of that figure coming from bird watching. That’s why it was one of the ideas Brian Rushing suggested with the University of Alabama Economic Development Center when Joe called to discuss possible ways to use the land beyond agriculture.
“He mentioned bird watching as well as horseback riding and ATV riding,” Joe says. “I knew we didn’t want to go horseback riding or mountain biking, but I thought bird watching sounded interesting. Then we had people from AlabamaAudubon to visit us, and they were very excited about it.
That’s because having coordinated birding tours on private property is a rarity in the state, though Rushing says it’s a relatively easy way for rural landowners to generate additional income. .
“It’s very common for private land in Alabama to be used for hunting, but birdwatching is something that has largely been relegated to publicly accessible sites like national forests or state parks,” says Rushing. “It’s an opportunity that most landowners aren’t particularly aware of. Thanks to Chris Joe for recognizing the potential.
Part of the appeal to Joe was that the time and cost to start such a business was limited, which was important since he has a full-time job with the United States Department of Agriculture in the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Joe bought an 18-foot trailer to ferry visitors along the farm’s six miles of groomed trails, installed a few portable toilets, and began offering Saturday tours by appointment. That was basically it. The birds did the rest.
“It’s just natural. It’s nothing we’re trying to manufacture,” says Joe.
In fact, some of the regular operations that take place in raising livestock contribute directly to the ornithological appeal of the farm. For example, when Cornelius Joe cuts grass fields for hay to feed cows, he reveals grasshoppers and dragonflies that provide a tasty meal for raptors such as the swallow-tailed kite.
“The birds will sit in the trees, and before I’m done cutting, they’ll swoop down and start catching the grasshoppers,” says Cornelius Joe. “It’s like ringing the dinner bell and saying, ‘Okay, boys, come in. And then they’re just everywhere. People will take photos of the birds while I’m still driving the tractor.
While this may be the most dramatic action to take place on the property, the farm is also home to a wide variety of other birds that sit serenely in the trees and provide a hissing soundtrack over the land. Chris Joe says the most common varieties are the indigo bunting, summer tanager and prothonotary warbler, along with the occasional bald eagle.
“People will go to different parts of the country at different times of the year looking for certain birds. It’s like a scavenger hunt with animals,” says Joe. “We had bird watchers from New York and California. Once people found out what we were doing here, it just took off.
Rushing says avid birders tend to be older and have lots of free time. As a result, they are often willing to spend money to pursue their hobby.
“Birdwatchers can have a really positive economic impact,” says Rushing. “There are a number of species that birdwatchers want to see that aren’t in their part of the country, so they will travel to see them. They tend to spend a lot of money on accommodation and tourist services.
“What’s really special about Joe’s Farm is that it’s in the Black Belt, which is a traditionally underserved area of Alabama, but it’s an area rich in natural resources. So there are opportunities for nature-based tourism, and this is a great example of that.
Which is important to Chris Joe. After all, Black Belt has been his family’s home for almost a century, and he wants to do what he can to help both the farm and the region. He hosted a Black Belt Birding Festival last year – such a success that he plans to extend it to a two-day event this year.
“The main attraction here is the Civil Rights Trail, which brings in people from out of state,” says Joe. “Now they can do it, and then come birding with us, eat in Greensboro, and maybe stay at a B&B. It’s money that goes into the community and into some of these very poor areas.
“Almost everyone who lived along this road was family. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. I feel like I did something that would have made them proud.
This story originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Business Alabama magazine.