|By MICHELE F. MIHALJEVICH
FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Agritourism has been a part of Kercher’s Sunrise Orchards’ business plan for years. The company’s owners just never called it that.
“We started hearing the phrase about six or seven years ago,” said Maureen Kercher. “We said, ‘Oh, they’ve given it a name now.’ We kind of chuckled about that.”
Kercher and her husband Tom are owners of the orchard, in Goshen in Elkhart County, Ind. Tom Kercher is the fourth generation in his family to run the orchard.
Even though the term is relatively new, the idea of agritourism has been around for many years, said Roy Ballard, Floyd County, Ind., Purdue extension educator for agriculture and natural resources.
“Agritourism is anything that brings someone onto the farm to enjoy goods and services and leaves money behind,” he said. “It’s one way to help keep the connection alive between farmers and the nonfarming public.”
Only 1-2 percent of the country is still farming, he said.
“Because fewer people are farming, or have a farm background, they don’t understand the needs or the lifestyle,” he said. “This is a good way to educate the public.”
For generations, Kercher’s has opened its doors for a variety of activities, Maureen Kercher said.
What started as casual tours of the warehouse has grown to include tours for area school children, fall festivals and hayrides, and the chance for customers to pick their own fruit.
“This has been a natural progression over time,” she said. “For example, years ago, it used to be that people came to pick their own products to can or freeze. They were putting things up for winter. Now they want to do it for fun as a family activity.
“People come looking to be entertained. You have to know your customer and know who will come, who wants to come, and what they would like to see when they get here.”
To help farmers understand their role in agritourism, six workshops were funded last year and in January in part by a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant.
“The workshops were well attended, and there was a lot of enthusiasm and momentum,” said Brian Blackford, development director with the Indiana Office of Tourism. “Agriculture is important in Indiana. Agritourism is a good fit and makes sense for our state. We’re exploring ways to promote that in Indiana. One of our goals is to look at various niche markets, and agriculture is one of them.”
While there are no figures available specifically for agritourism, Indiana welcomes about 58 million visitors a year, Blackford said. The state’s tourism industry has a $6.7 billion economic impact, he said.
The workshops were intended to explore the pros and cons of agritourism and to give farmers the chance to learn from those already involved in it, he said.
“This just gives farmers another option, and may be a way for them to stay in the community,” he said. “It can be for supplemental income or could develop into something full-time.”
The workshops looked at the perils and possibilities for agritourism on a given farm, Ballard said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here,” he said. “We’re trying to improve on it.”
Farmers interested in agritourism should determine what they want to accomplish, and then assess their farms with that in mind, Ballard said. They should look at the physical facilities and determine the skills and abilities of those within the family.
The workshops showed farmers there are partners, such as local convention and visitors bureaus, who are available to help them research, set up and promote an agritourism business on their farms, Ballard said.
Farmers also need to be aware of liability issues, he said.
“You should talk with your insurance agent to know what your policy will cover,” he said. “There are a lot of natural hazards on the farm. You should do everything you can to make visitors aware of those with signs, fencing and railings.”
Cynthia and John Adam started a corn maze and pick your own pumpkin path on their 80-acre dairy farm, Knollbrook Farm, in Goshen two years ago.
“Our focus is ag education,” Cynthia Adam said. “We want it to be family friendly and educational. There are too many people who have no clue what’s going on there. They have never touched a calf. They have no idea what it takes to raise crops.”
Their corn maze is not haunted and visitors learn about agriculture by attempting to answer questions attached to posts throughout the maze, she said.
The couple sought advice from a friend in southern Indiana before opening the maze and starting other activities, Cynthia Adam said.
“This isn’t a generational farm, it’s relatively new,” she said. “We started this knowing that’s what we wanted to do.
“We bounced ideas off our mentors. And we talked to our insurance company about liability for a haunted maze. We decided we’re definitely not doing that.”
Kercher’s will not let more visitors and activities change the reason for the orchard, Maureen Kercher said.
“This is a working farm,” she said. “We’re not fake. We don’t want to lose that quaintness. We’re not doing this just to entertain folks. We’re not a Disney World, and we won’t be that.”