Inviting the public to your smooth-running 21st-century farming operation isn’t for everyone. But for those who make it work, the rewards are many.
Charleen “Bunny” Lawrence wonders whether her family farm would have opened its doors to tourists had her husband, Harlan, been alive when she took the plunge.
Bunny helped him run the 1,200-acre farm in Macedon for nearly three decades beginning in the 1950s. Founded by the Lawrence family in 1927, the place wasn’t immune to change by any means. In the early years, the farm was a combined dairy and grain-crop operation. Then, with the blessings of rich soil and a love for working the land, Bunny and Harlan turned all their energy to crops. The cows were sold, and they farmed acres of snap beans, sweet and field corn, wheat, dry beans and soy beans.
Harlan “was a machinery man ... happy riding his tractor,” said Bunny.
Today, however, Long Acre Farms is the envy of many who aspire to succeed in attracting visitors to farms.
Bunny and her family “are the poster children for agri-tourism,” said Michele Fish, who runs Fish’s Farm Market in Manchester with her husband, Lynn. “They do a great job.”
Long Acre Farms on Eddy Road attracts thousands of visitors annually to its Amazing Maize Maze — complete with music and interactive entertainment. Visitors include families, corporate team-building groups and students on, ahem, field trips. Long Acre hosts an eclectic slew of events during the year that include a Sweet Corn Fest, Pumpkin Harvest Weekend, a Civil War Encampment, Ultralight Fly-ins and a Medieval War Practice.
Not all agri-tourism businesses need be as flashy as Long Acre’s, though.
A map published by tourism promoters in the Finger Lakes a few years ago pinpoints a plethora of agri-tourism operations, everything from an alpaca farm to U-pick orchards and places to catch a hayride. Promoting county-grown foods and products, Ontario County’s Agricultural Adventure Trail map identifies places to wine, dine or just explore.
The term agri-tourism covers a broad spectrum of offerings, said Jessica Chittenden, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture & Markets, and officials are just beginning to compile statistics on how many such businesses are out there, she said.
The Finger Lakes Visitors Connection lists 45 Ontario County “agri-tourism” attractions in its data base, ranging from farm markets to vineyards. Pat Charland, vice president of marketing for the tourism group, said recent additions include an influx of new wineries — five in Ontario County alone — as well as the opening of the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua and startups at Cornell University’s Technology Farm in Geneva, such as the manufacturing of CherryPharm health juice.
Twenty Ontario County restaurants are serving “regional cuisine,” she added, which means they are buying and preparing ingredients grown right here in the Finger Lakes. In 2002, just 10 restaurants in the county reported local products making up a significant portion of their menu.
The attraction that farming and farm products have for tourists has caught the attention of those who hold the purse strings in Albany. Earlier this month, state Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker announced $1.15 million in funding for agri-tourism projects. That includes matching grants for fairs and festivals and a media campaign along the state Thruway advertising agri-tourism stops.
But combining the business of entertaining with the labor of farming isn’t for everyone.
Chittenden said it takes the right mix of location, organization and a willingness to break from tradition to be successful.
Farms located off the beaten path have to work harder to advertise their offerings, she said. In addition, farmers who like farming because they like working on their own have to give that up. “When you invite the public into your home, you change the way life is on most farms,” she said.
Bunny Lawrence said she barely remembers the term agri-tourism being used when her family decided to branch out from their traditional farming ways in the 1980s. What prompted the changes? Bunny said her daughter, Joan, and son-in-law, Doug Allen, “are people people.” Joan and Doug, who were in Hawaii this month celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, wanted to take the farm in a new direction, Bunny said. So the family agreed to begin by scaling back to farming just 650 acres of pumpkins and sweet corn and selling from roadside markets. Doug and Joan enjoyed the social give-and-take of running a market, but it wasn’t always lucrative, said Bunny.
“You have a wet October and nobody comes to buy pumpkins,” she said. “And the sweet corn is done.”
Then, after a drive through the Southern Tier, where they saw pumpkins painted with faces, an inspiration hit. Bunny said she remembers thinking, “we can do that.”
Before they knew it, they were not only selling painted pumpkins but were giving tours of the farm to school kids.
Then, one day, Doug did some research on the Internet and discovered a franchise called Amazing Maize Maze. The concept of forging a maze through a cornfield to entertain began in England and became popular in Pennsylvania. Bunny said they invited a representative of the franchise to visit the farm and advise them. In 1998, Long Acre became the first Amazing Maize Maze site in New York state.
“We jumped in with both feet,” said Bunny. Harlan wouldn’t have liked the idea, she added. “He wasn’t a franchise man.”
But from a business standpoint, it proved a good decision, said Bunny. Her advice: “You have to find a niche that works for you.” It also takes a willingness to shift focus from strictly farming to entertaining, she said. When you get into the tourism business, “you aren’t your own boss. You are catering to everybody’s whims and wishes.”
“People want to be entertained,” she added. “If you can figure out something, you’ve got it made.”
Not a keeper
Entertaining. That is a concept that struck Jim Kennedy eight or nine years ago. Kennedy, who owns Willow Pond Aqua Farms on Swamp Road in Hopewell, said he began exploring ways to attract visitors to his farm, where he sells products and services for designing and maintaining water gardens, fountains and ponds.
His 23-acre farm seemed the perfect place to cater to visitors, said Kennedy, who has been in business 17 years. So he designed walking trails through his gardens and around his ponds and created places to hold fly-fishing classes. He modeled his idea after one used in Manchester, Vt., by Orvis, a company that sells fly fishing gear and related equipment. But it was a tough go, he said, with response sporadic and scheduling of staff difficult. To make it profitable, he would have needed 300 to 400 visitors a season taking the fly-fishing classes. One season, he had just 30 participating. So after a few seasons, he scrapped the idea. Kennedy said he learned a lot from his venture, though, and is thinking of trying it again and doing more advertising — including coordinating with other tourist attractions — and being more strict about scheduling visitors.
“You’ve got to keep people entertained,” he said. “The more you can do for them, the better.”
At Lazy Acre Alpacas, a farm on Baker Road in West Bloomfield, Mark and Sharon Gilbride discovered that people love to visit their serene 200-acre farm and watch 70 or so huacaya alpacas lounge in lush pastures and hang out in loafing sheds.
“It’s very picturesque,” said Mark, who had success in the paintball business before going into farming.
Sharon, who grew up on a dairy farm in West Bloomfield, knew how labor-intensive farming could be and wasn’t an easy sell on the idea initially, he said. But when they discovered alpacas and how the animals were a natural draw, they latched onto this form of agri-tourism. They host tours and open houses and run a gift shop that sells socks, sweaters and other items made from the alpaca fleece.
For another Ontario County family, the agri-tourism concept has also taken a twist. Michele and Lynn Fish of Manchester run a 200-acre fruit and vegetable farm on Mt. Payne Road and operate road stands. They first explored ways to promote their farm by offering attractions for visitors such as haunted hayrides, said Michele. But they decided to go another route: hosting a Community Supported Agriculture program. The concept has taken off in recent years, with farms getting a commitment from community members to buy a certain amount of produce from the farm, often at discount prices in exchange for helping work there.
At their farm, “we don’t have a lot of frills,” said Michele. So the idea of getting people involved with the actual farming operation, sans clever entertainment, appeals to them. Lynn said it is yet another way to bring “added value” to a farm.
The idea is about “going local — and getting the community behind it,” he said.
Contact Julie Sherwood at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 263, or at email@example.com