On-Farm Sales and Tourism, Page 2
On-Farm Sales & Agritourism
|The Walters’ 100 varieties of pumpkins and squash attract 15,000 visitors every fall. The new enterprise has brought their daughter’s family back to the Burns, Kan., farm. – Photo by William Rebstock|
Potential agritourism enterprises abound. Figure out what’s unique about your farm and your skills, and use those things to create an enjoyable, educational experience that will appeal to your customers. The key to agritourism is authenticity and creativity.
Becky Walters planted her first acre of pumpkins on her central Kansas farm in 1988 after her boss at a local greenhouse gave her seed for a new miniature pumpkin that was popular at nurseries and farm markets.
“My husband caught a big razzing at the co-op,” she recalls, “but I made $583 selling them, twice what we would have made on the 5 acres of milo we usually had in that field.”
Like most of their neighbors, Becky and her husband, Carroll, had been growing milo and soybeans and grazing cattle for the commodity market. With grain and beef prices hovering at or below the cost of production, the couple was eager to find a way to breathe new profits into the 1,700-acre farm where Carroll had grown up.
Bit by bit, the Walters expanded that original acre of pumpkins to 16 acres. They built a processing kitchen so they could create value-added products. Then they added a gift shop, a swinging bridge over their creek to appeal to kids, a corn maze and educational tours to draw customers to their farm, ideally located for a tourism venture just minutes off the Kansas Turnpike.
Today, the Walters grow more than 100 varieties of pumpkins, gourds and winter squash -- from minis to giants -- along with tomatoes, peppers and onions. Planting many squash varieties also helps the Walters spread risk, since different types thrive in different weather conditions. Drawn by the variety and convenient location, as many as 15,000 visitors flock to Walters’ Pumpkin Patch in the six weeks leading up to Halloween.
“People come just to see all the different kinds that we have,” says Becky Walters, who received a SARE farmer/rancher grant to experiment with ways to add value to pumpkins by making salsa. The product, after experimentation with the recipe and the right jar for packing, dovetails with their tourism efforts, complements their other vegetables and provides new jobs in their community.
The enterprise has been so successful that her daughter and son-in-law have moved back to the farm to help out. With their two young grandsons beginning to get involved in the business, Becky says, “it feels like a real family farm again.”
To expand their educational efforts for school groups, the Walters will teach visitors about native frogs and fish in their farm pond and incorporate information about the Walnut River, which surrounds them on three sides.
“I think having an idea of doing something and jumping off the cliff to do it is the hardest part,” Walters says. “Sometimes it takes what I call ‘thinking outside the barn.’ When you put a pencil to it, it just doesn’t make sense for us to grow the conventional crops any more.”
The Walters and others who offer educational programs for school groups recognize that teaching children usually requires special skills and always a good set of ideas. To engage children, consider getting them involved in projects -- whether it’s digging potatoes, planting corn, or decorating pumpkins. Keeping groups small helps. Of course, ensuring safety is paramount, especially on farms with heavy equipment and other hazards. If you don’t have the resources to develop educational programs on your own, consider working with local schoolteachers, FFA groups, or others in the community.
Marlene Groves of Buffalo Groves, Inc., in Kiowa, Colo., developed youth education programs – including an “American Buffalo” Girl Scout patch program and an educational youth buffalo project for 4-H – to teach about buffalo history. The ranch’s “Bison Reader,” a youth activity sheet, is a favorite at many schools and nature centers. Efforts like these, Groves says, foster a better understanding of ecology, agriculture and nutrition. Mainly, she wants kids to know where their food comes from.
The Groves teach people, young and old, about their ranch and their niche product during ranch tours. They charge $25 per person, refundable in the form of store credit, and also offer customized tours for private events.
“It takes work to run tours” on a 2,000-acre ranch, Groves acknowledges, “but we want to showcase what we’re doing.” They lead visitors on walks, talk about grazing management and point out native grasses and wildflowers. “Of course, the highlight is going out to see the buffalo herd,” she says.
Offering tours is a way of taking advantage of consumers’ and the media’s interest in farm life, Groves says. As part of that, “tell a good story – tell your own story,” she advises. In addition to selling meat on the ranch, they also market and deliver directly to customers in Denver and Colorado Springs and from their Website.
Other ranchers have expanded into diverse on-site activities, offering hunting, fishing, bird-watching, horseback riding or hiking. In Colorado, co-owners of the 87,000-acre Chico Basin Ranch began offering working ranch vacation packages in 2000. While it’s taking time to make that side of the business fully profitable, they feel they’re moving in the right direction, says ranch manager Duke Phillips.
While some people visit just for birding, which brings lower returns, “we have packages where people stay for a week and we get paid well for that,” says Phillips.
“We have to balance what we do with our values, the reason we’re here as ranchers.”
Chico Basin was among a group of ranches in Colorado, Wyoming and other western states that benefited from a SARE grant exploring various types of community-based direct marketing models for ranch owners seeking to diversify. The key is to put a value on the natural resource amenities provided by ranchlands and to find ways for urban- and suburban-based consumers to enjoy those amenities.