People have long been visiting the country to pick their own fruit. But these days, there are many more activities enticing tourists to the farm.
Farmers are finding unique and innovative ways to attract city slickers, not only to bolster income but also to promote agriculture and rural living.
According to Purdue University research, nature- or agricultural-based tourism is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. tourism industry, averaging a 30 percent increase since 1997.
From farmhouse bed-and-breakfast operations to winery tours, specialized product sales and Halloween attractions, farmers are taking a chance on tourism.
At nine years of age, Jerry Howell, living on a pig and chicken farm, decided to sell a few pumpkins from a wheelbarrow. Decades later, he’s running the Howell Family Pumpkin Farm, relying completely on revenue from visitors.
“I realized, heck at nine I’d made 28 bucks. So, the next year I asked my dad to plant more pumpkins and that year I sold a wagon load,” says Howell. “It just kept getting bigger.”
A jack-o-lantern display in the 1980s was so successful that the family started school tours and wagon rides. They also added a 3,000-square-foot haunted barn and a 25-foot robotic pumpkin dinosaur called Pumkinosaurous Rex.
There are pony rides, hay romps, a pumpkin catapult, animal petting areas, pumpkin carving demonstrations, scarecrow displays, puppet shows and a corn maze adventure.
“This [agritourism] is now our only source of income. There are no more chickens or pigs and we make all of our money in one month [October],” he says.
While the Howells rely entirely on agritourism, Mike Bose has successfully added a corn maze component to his existing turkey and vegetable farm operation.
“My family has been farming for over 100 years and been fighting for market share. This is a way for us to ensure viability of the farm and to bring people back out to the farm — to connect between urban and rural communities.”
Picking unique themes for the corn maze has garnered media attention, which Bose considers the best marketing tool.
“Ending up on the news does more good than anything and giving to charity is another way to get attention,” says Bose. His corn maze logos have included golf, football and hockey themes, as well as a bucking bronco.
Visitors come from around the world. The maze also attracts youth and church groups, birthday parties and other special events. “We do really big numbers in September and October. It’s big business,” says Bose.
Steve and Dorothy Enger open their 1,600-acre North Dakota farm to the public annually through the fall months. The couple expanded into agritourism as a means of additional income.
Known as Fall Family Fun on the Farm, attractions include a haunted house, indoor games, face painting, miniature golf and cow milking — all to supplement the growing of carrots and pumpkins. “It is treated as any other enterprise on the farm,” says Dorothy Enger.
And it began quite by accident.
“We were working with our church youth group and decided to have a Halloween party at our farm to raise money for [a charity]. It seemed like a lot of work to do for just our church for one night, so we opened it up to the public. People came and said they liked it and asked us to do it again. It has grown each year since,” says Enger.
Adding “agri-entertainment” makes for a very busy fall at the Enger farm. “It gets very hectic at times because the crops we raise and the fall activities in our yard are all taking place at the same time as harvest. It makes for very short nights of sleep and sometimes not even going to bed,” she says.
Each year, something new is added and is always home-made and self-financed.
“We find it virtually impossible to get finances for this. Lenders frown on it and so do insurance companies. One better be prepared to have the means to start themselves,” says Enger.
The U.S. government may provide funding through agencies such as USDA Rural Development, the Rural Community Empowerment Program, and the National Council of State Agriculture Finance Programs.
And while branching into agritourism has proven successful, Howell says he sees the need to further diversify. “We’ve been realizing that all our eggs are in one basket and we’ve had a couple of rainy Octobers, so we’re developing singing chickens as a side business.”
Howell is building animatronic chickens that pop out of crates. Chick-n-motion products will be marketed to other entrepreneurial farmers who have expressed interest in this type of attraction.
However, he says agritourism isn’t for everyone.
“It’s for people who like people…because at times the large crowds can be very stressful. It’s not for all farms.”
Enger agrees. “People who get into agritourism are a different thinking kind of people than the norm. They are energetic, creative, jack-of-all-trades kind of people. One can’t afford to hire all that is to be done.
“They need to work with and understand marketing, construction, be people-oriented and be willing to start from the ground up and build the business just like they did with their traditional farm,” she says.
While diversification is important for added income, farmers feel strongly that there should also be an educational component to agritourism operations.
“Seventy percent of the population used to have ties to the farm, which was huge, but now it’s just two percent,” says Howell.
“We are teaching what farms are all about, how plants grow, and that we need bees for pollination, etc. A lot of people don’t get exposed to it all.”
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