When Midwest farming intersects with tourism, optimism and caution abound

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July 29, 2012 - 7:00pm

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, Midwestern policymakers have begun planting the seeds to grow the agritourism industry in their own states.

Photo by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media

Customer Connie Farmer, left, waits for her berries as Renee Seba rings up her purchase at Mule Barn Berries. Farmer and her husband questioned Seba about the lack of a highway sign for the berry patch.

Photo by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media

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. The Sebas say the raspberries are often picked out, and if the plants were healthier they could sell more.

Photo by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media

At Geiringer's Orchard in Edgerton, Kan., Frank Gieringer planted sweet corn next to his peach orchard to help meet customer demand for "what else have you got?"

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,'" Renee Seba said. "It was this panic moment."

This year, they're 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," Renee 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, according to the Agriculture Census undertaken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But policymakers in the Midwest are enthusiastic about the potential of agritourism for the Midwest, and over the last few years, state agencies and universities have developed numerous resources and web sites devoted to the industry. 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 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.

Owner Frank Gieringer farms about 1,000 acres and produces corn, soybeans and beef cattle, which are his family's primary sources 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.


Photo by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media

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

Raasch advertised the opening of Carolyn's Country Cousins in 1991 by leaving flyers on minivans in the parking lot of the local Walmart. Even today, the Raasches rely mainly on home-grown advertising methods such as this sign painted on the side of a trailer."

"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 ensure the infrastructure is there to support and promote them. Oftentimes, 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," she 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 who 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.

By the numbers

Fully understanding the potential of agritourism in the Midwest and the country as a whole is hampered by two factors: the lack of an official definition of agritourism and the limited amount of economic data available.

The only comprehensive source on the economic impact of agritourism available in the United States comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture. Every agriculture producer in the country is required to fill out the agriculture census questionnaire, which comes out every five years. However, the questionnaire leaves the definition of agritourism open to interpretation, describing it as - farm or winery tours, hay rides, hunting, fishing, etc.

It depends on the individual producer what they report, and it is possible, for example, that winery owners only reported the amount they received directly from wine tours and omitted money from travel, restaurants and selling the wine itself. According to the Wine Institute, an organization that represents the interests of the California wine industry, California wine contributed $2.1 billion to the tourist industry in 2006. That's $2.07 billion less than what the entire California agritourism industry made in 2007 according to the agriculture census.

The census questionnaire also has a separate section for reporting income received from selling products directly to the customer. That means income from u-pick and country stores may not be included in the agritourism numbers.

Graphic by Camille Phillips, Harvest Public Media



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