Agritourism industry thrives during peak fall season
By Darrin Cline
The onset of cooler weather and the auburn hue of autumn leaves is a sign of harvest for many in the ag industry. For others, it is a peak time for agritourism.
Whether it's apple orchards, pumpkin patches, hayrides or petting zoos, the advent of agritourism has provided families and individuals with a gateway to the country lifestyle.
What is the allure of these furrows and farms that draws crowds to the world off the beaten path? There is no new-age technology or high-energy performances; Sunday afternoon football is supplanted with curiosity of fall crops and newborn animals.
Rising out of the plains and rural gravels of western Kansas, TLB Farms and Cattle Prairie Pumpkins has established its own niche in the agritourism industry. Terry and Laurie Brenbeck launched their diversified ag enterprise out of Utica, Kan., in 2011.
"It's surprising sometimes. Even in a rural farming community like this, there are things about agriculture that not all people are familiar with and we enjoy showing and educating people," said Laurie Brenbeck.
The family built a tourist attraction around their passion and experience as livestock producers. As operators of a cow-calf farm, the Brenbecks wanted to share their love of animals.
A unique menagerie highlights the combination zoo and pumpkin patch: goats, horses, a wild mustang, miniature donkeys and alpacas. Aside from the exotic animal collection, the farm has developed a pumpkin patch, hay bale maze, pony rides and even a giant slide lined with fresh bales.
"One of the great things is our whole family is involved. My parents, kids, grandkids, everybody is involved. The little kids love it and are as good at giving tours as the adults," Brenbeck said.
In addition to the family's participation, the farm also utilizes the volunteer efforts of nearby Ness City FFA members who assist in giving tours.
The Brenbecks also aim to show the byproducts of agriculture; the farm's small store features homemade jams and jellies, as well as homespun alapaca yarn and fibers.
While the Brenbecks have capitalized on their interest and expertise in the animal industry, other producers have customized their own talents toward creating agritourism enterprises.
Over the last decade and a half, Bloomsbury Farms in eastern Iowa has evolved into a destination for everyone from daycare groups to corporate outings. Born out of the greenhouse dream of proprietor Karen Petersen, Bloomsbury has evolved into a full-fledged agritourism business.
Blossoming from the Petersen Family Farm that was initially homesteaded in 1856, Karen used her floriculture experience to open Bloomsbury Farms in 1995 before venturing into agritourism in 1997.
According to Petersen, the seed was planted when her eldest daughter's first grade teacher wanted to bring the class on a field trip at their Atkins, Iowa, farm. Since then, Bloomsbury Farms has become a destination, not just an attraction.
"There's a few things though, when you get into this business you have to like people and you have to roll with the punches. You have to invest a lot of money to make it work," Peterson said. "We are more sophisticated now. We started out pretty small but we kept adding."
The acreage features a laundry list of events and activities: haunted corn mazes, pumpkin cannons, a Fall Harvest Festival, Barnyard Buddies Petting Zoo, "Cuisine in the Corn" charity dinners, hayrides, and homemade treats.
While the complement of activities has burgeoned and changed over the years, the cornerstone attractions remain the ag-based activities. A newly constructed Learning Barn was built in 2008 and new mascot "Cornelius Cob" provides visitors an opportunity to see how big of a role Iowa and Midwest farmers play in their everyday lives. Adding events like the Kids Summer Ag program has allowed kids to spend time at Bloomsbury and learn more about plant agriculture.
Petersen has seen growth in the popularity of the agritourism field, and believes many other farmers are beginning to start their own businesses.
"People are trying to do things with their farms if they have the wherewithal to do it--wineries, dried flowers--people are trying to think of different things," Petersen said.
Professionals and tourism experts are migrating to agritourism and specializing in enhancing the field. The Petersens once cut their own mazes, which took six days; now, they hire a company to do it in six hours. Patterns representing Willie Nelson, Orange County Choppers and Quaker Oats have been etched into their fields. Consultants come from Florida to the Midwest to help develop activities, such as haunted houses and barns that have become staples at agritourism farms.
Whether it is a newcomer to the industry such as TLB Farms, or a business that has been around since the mid-1990s like Bloomsbury Farms, both families agree on the positive impact and potential benefits agritourism destinations have on introducing people to the perks of a rural lifestyle.
As Karen Petersen puts it, "...it's not as easy an easy process," but well worth the opportunity to provide tourists an experience centered on life in the classic agrarian world.