Farmers cautiously optimistic about agritourism

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July 30th, 2012

By Camille Phillips

Lathrop, MO – Breaking into agritourism can be harder than it looks. Farmers and policymakers are trying to boost rural economies by bringing visitors onto the farm to pay for the honor of doing chores like picking fruit or roping cattle. But there is a learning curve for farmers branching out into the agritourism industry.

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Farm-based tourism attractions like u-pick berry patches, wine tastings, dude ranches and guided hunting trips have been in the Midwest for years. But California, Texas and Colorado have the lion’s share of this type of business, commonly labeled agritourism. Recently, however, Midwestern policymakers have begun planting the seeds to grow the agritourism industry in their states.

Customer Connie Farmer, left, waits for her berries as Renee Seba rings up her purchase at Mule Barn Berries. (Photo by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media)

Renee Seba and her husband Charlie are among those figuring out how to make a go of it. They operate Mule Barn Berries, in Lathrop, Mo., north of Kansas City.

Last year they didn’t have enough customers for their u-pick operation. With bushels of berries rotting on the vine, they scrambled to find other ways to sell the fruit.

“My husband said, well call Lidia’s Restaurant. Let’s pack up fruit and take it to grocery stores and see if they’ll buy anything. It was this panic moment,” Renee Seba said.

Renee and Charlie Seba, the owners of Mule Barn Berries, are experimenting with two rows of raspberries, which have turned out to be customer favorites. (Photo by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media)

But this year they are better prepared. Several area restaurants buy their berries, they’ve made arrangements to sell at more farmers markets, and as a last resort they can call gleaners to pick the remaining fruit. And, of course, they have u-pick.

“U-pick, everyone’s happy,” Seba said. “They come out, they have a great experience. I get to talk to people, which I really like It’s all win-win-win when it’s u-pick.”

Still, the Sebas aren’t over the hump.

“We hoped to be profitable by the end of this year, but that’s not going to be reality,” Renee Seba said. “We spent too much money. Didn’t budget well enough.”

Even when the Sebas begin making a profit, odds are it won’t be enough to make much of a living. Agritourism businesses in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas brought in an average of $12,300 in 2007. That’s according to the Agriculture Census undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In over 20 years of operation, the owners of Carolyn’s Country Cousins in Liberty, Mo., have added many attractions to encourage visitors to make a day of it. Here, co-owner Carolyn Raasch, right, helps her granddaughter Adalyn Raasch feed the goats at the petting zoo as site manager Gieselle Fest looks on.” (Photo by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media)

Still, policymakers in the Midwest are enthusiastic about the potential of agritourism in the Midwest. And over the last few years state agencies and universities have developed numerous resources and web sites devoted to agritourism. Still, there’s work to be done, said Linda Craghead with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

“It’s new for Kansas,” Craghead said. “Even though we passed the law in 2004 to promote Kansas as an agritourism — as an industry, it’s not something people have just truly embraced.”

Out of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, Kansas is the only state with a law designed to promote agritourism. It limits the liability of agritourism operators and aids in marketing via free registration. Similar bills have been introduced in Nebraska and Missouri, but have never been made into law.

There are some pioneers – like Gieringer Orchards in Edgerton, Kan., 30 miles from Kansas City.

The Raasches rely mainly on home-grown advertising methods such as this sign painted on the side of a trailer. (Photo by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media)

Owner Frank Gieringer farms about 1,000 acres and produces corn, soybeans and beef cattle -that’s his family’s primary source of income.

But about 10 years ago, Gieringer added a new crop peaches and invited people out to the orchard to pick. Today, he has 12 acres of peach trees, a couple of acres of blackberries, sweet corn and five hoop houses full of tomatoes and other vegetables. In addition to u-pick, Gieringer and his wife Melanie sell their produce at a country store on their property, and at several area farmers markets.

Inside the store, Gieringer explained that they found that the best way to get people out to their orchard is to hand out flyers at the farmers market. At the same time, their orchard is a big help in selling their produce at the market.

“But when we set up, we only sell what we grow,” Gieringer said. “And we usually put up a u-pick sign too, so people automatically key into the fact that well, they’ve got to grow their stuff.”

Selling their peaches directly to the consumer through u-pick and the farmers market enables the Gieringer’s to make a profit despite their relatively small orchard.

Another pioneer is Carolyn Raasch in Liberty, Mo.

In 1991 she opened Carolyn’s Country Cousins on her farm to sell the pumpkins and other produce she had been selling at a farmers market. That same year, a school asked if they could bring students out to see a farm. Now 17,000 schoolchildren tour the farm each year.

“People used to be able to go to grandma’s and grandpa’s every weekend or aunt’s and uncle’s,” Raasch said. “And now, we are not one generation removed from the farm, we’re three and four generations removed from the farm. Some of them have never set foot on a farm and just played in the mud and played in the dirt, like we used to all the time.”

But their school tours offer a lot more than dirt. There’s an animal barn, a pig race, a hay bale maze, a slide and jungle gym made of farm supplies, a train ride and to top it off: a u-pick pumpkin patch. Raasch’s sons also operate a corn maze right next to Carolyn’s Country Cousins.

One of the reasons agritourism appeals to farmers is that it takes advantage of the land, equipment and knowledge they already possess. Raasch and her husband Buddy farm full-time, as do their two adult sons. They use the same farm equipment and expertise to plant their 8,000 acres of row crops as they do to plant the 60 acre u-pick pumpkin patch and corn maze.

But despite the size of their agritourism operation, traditional farming remains the Raash family’s primary income.

“Row crop is our number one income. Row crop is our number one income by far,” Raasch said.

Still, the attractions draw thousands of paying customers each year and employ 150 people each fall. That kind of success can create a ripple effect of economic growth in a rural community, said Sharon Gulick with the University of Missouri Extension. After all, tourists need places to stay, restaurants to eat in, and a variety of things to do.

Gulick oversees rural economic development projects in the state. The projects work together as regions to pinpoint their most marketable attributes and insure the infrastructure is there to support and promote them. Often times, Gulick said, the food of the region is what stands out most.

“And that’s where the unique opportunity comes in, because the wine in Mississippi River Hills is very different than the wine that’s in Old Trails,” Gulick said.

Craghead with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, takes the potential even further – envisioning Kansas farms as vacation destinations.

“But there are so many people that want to experience what we do every day,” she said. “How many people out there have really ever ridden on a combine? Very few. How many people have stood in a grain truck and felt the warm grain around them as it comes out the auger of a combine? Very few. ”

A family vacation milking cows or harvesting wheat may never have the appeal of Disneyland. But for the farmers that decide to branch out into agritourism, perhaps the opportunity to share their way of life is enough. Especially when it can help bring an influx of cash to their community and put a few extra thousand dollars in their pocket.

Harvest Public Media, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, reports on issues of food, fuel and field across the Midwest.

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