Ecotourism offers interesting new opportunities for rural entrepreneurs

Two Cranes

Cattle, corn and soybeans aren’t the only products Nebraska farmers and ranchers are growing.  Rural Nebraskans are now growing capital by inviting tourists to their rural properties to connect with the natural environment, learn about wildlife, and experience how their food is produced. Ecotourism pioneers are inviting tourists from all over the world to experience what rural Nebraska has to offer.

Although there are many reasons tourists may come to Nebraska, two prime drivers of the modern ecotourism movement in Nebraska are the annual bird migrations through the Central Flyway, and the cowboy and old West culture that lives on in many of our farm and ranch operations.

Cowboys and cranes

The fact that our cowboy culture survives and thrives in the U.S. intrigues many European travelers. Rowse’s 1+1 Ranch near Burwell, draws guests from all over Europe to an award-winning dude ranch, allowing them to experience real ranch work in the hauntingly beautiful grasslands of the Sandhills. Rowse’s 1+1 Ranch has been family owned since its original claim in the 1880s, and today the land and homestead are owned and managed by Tammy and Jerry Rowse who developed the dude ranch to supplement their cattle operation.

Nebraska wildlife draws an increasing number of the more than 80 million wildlife tourists in the U.S.  Although wildlife is just one of the amenities visitors to Rowse’s 1+1 seek, tens of thousands of visitors are drawn to the region every year specifically to witness the migrating Sandhill Cranes and millions of ducks and geese marking Nebraska skies in March and April. Entrepreneurs like Linda and Bob Ard saw the opportunities in wildlife and ecotourism and wove bird watching into their business plan.

Linda and Bob retired from careers as educators at Del Mar College in Corpus Christie, Texas only to embark on a second career in the ecotourism industry. Linda was raised on the farmstead near Minden that she and Bob purchased in 2006 with plans to renovate the century-old farm house into a gracious bed and breakfast and build a restaurant in the former barn.

Using the resources at hand

Burchell's White Hill Farmhouse Inn When construction was complete, Linda and Bob were quick to capitalize on their location in south central Nebraska.

“The Ard family is known to be forward-thinking and making use of the resources at hand,” Linda joked, noting that among the “resources at hand” are some 4,200 square miles of extraordinarily abundant and varied bird watching.

The Rainwater Basin in south central Nebraska is deep inside one of the most unique and fertile bird watching regions of the world. Each year, some ten million waterfowl and other birds of all types drop down into this area to feed and restore their depleted reserves in preparation for the next leg of their migration north.

Rainwater Basin waterfowl production areas are accessible to the public and many are within a 30 minute drive of the White Hill Farmhouse Inn.  Bird watching opportunities at Fort Kearney State Park, Rowe Sanctuary, Funk Lagoon, Harlan County Reservoir and their own six acres of open prairie fuel the Ard’s marketing program.

Their diligence and hard work pay off. “The month of March is the busiest and most profitable month of the year for us. We are always booked up in the Crane season,” Linda said.

Advice for entrepreneurs

If you’re considering starting an ecotourism business of your own, it’s good to get advice from people who have been there. Tammy Rowse of Rowse’s 1+1 advises people who intend to start-up a tourist business to first join an association that represents individuals in the industry you hope to join, in her case, the Dude Ranchers’ Association. She said that joining a national association gives your business credibility, and membership often leads to contacts and customers.

She also noted that businesses succeed or fail on how skillfully they market their product. Rowse’s 1+1 is advertised on the Internet, on Facebook, in magazines, and via Google Ad Words.

“We learned by many experiences where our dollar is best spent on advertising,” Tammy said. “The majority of our guests come from Europe, and we learned to work with a travel agency in Germany for advertising our product.” Rowe’s 1+1 Ranch has achieved world class status as a premier ranch vacation destination as evidenced by numerous awards and features in national and international magazines.

Linda and Bob Ard are also distinguished in Nebraska tourism circles for developing an award winning hostelry in a location that some would consider difficult to market. The Burchell’s White Hill Farmhouse Inn was recently featured in Midwest Living as among the “Best of the Best Bed & Breakfasts”.

To Linda, the best advice for entrepreneurs considering ecotourism is to, “Be connected to your community and network with absolutely everybody.” She advises entrepreneurs to invest in their ideas and skills and to use every available resource.

Lastly, she advises not to overlook the value of retirement-age tourists. “They may have gray hair, but they also have a brain, monetary resources and skills,” she said. “It is common for retired people to do the things they have always wanted to do.”

There’s a lot more to Nebraska than just the crops we raise, and there’s obviously more than one way to make a living off the land. You just have to open to the possibilities.

For more information…

Burchell’s White Hill Farmhouse Inn
Linda and Bob Ard
1578 30th Road
Minden, NE
Telephone: 308-832-1323

Rowse’s 1+1 Ranch
Tammy and Jerry Rowse
46849 833rd Road
Burwell, NE 68823

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