By MATTHEW D. ERNST
(This is the second of a five-part series spotlighting businesses that earn their incomes from different kinds of agricultural retail ventures.)
RALEIGH, N.C. — Martha Glass defines agritourism by example: “Our agritourism industry in North Carolina ranges from kayaking and canoeing at farms with a camp stand, to Scout camps, to children visiting a farm and seeing a patch of cotton for the first time.”
Glass, manager of the Agritourism Office at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, added, “And then there are the fall festivals, U-pick, rural weddings and all the wineries. I’m afraid I get a little carried away, but it’s still just so hard to pin down what agritourism is!”
Whether in Raleigh or Indianapolis, agritourism is hard to pin down. The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, based at Iowa State University, gives this definition: “Agritourism describes the act of visiting a working farm or any agricultural, horticultural or agribusiness operation to enjoy, be educated or be involved in activities.”
By any definition, it was all new to Knightstown, Ind., native Greg Hochstedler. He first heard the word nearly a decade ago, visiting with Purdue University extension educator Jonathan Farris. The two discussed possible uses for a 160-acre Knightstown property purchased by Hochstedler in 2005. Aware of his successful business background, Farris suggested agritourism.
“I said, ‘What’s agritourism?’” recalled Hochstedler, who had recently sold the Indianapolis power-washing business he started after graduating from Ball State University’s entrepreneurship program in 1988.
He had met his goal for retiring by age 40, but the entrepreneur found himself unable to retire. “I wanted to move back here to Knightstown and give back,” he said. “Agritourism seemed like an obvious fit.”
Although Hochstedler was younger than most, Glass said he fits a definite trend of businesspeople pursuing agritourism enterprises in their retirement. “These people know how to run businesses, and they often love kids and want to give back to young people,” she said. “They retire to the country, but don’t really want to retire, so they take up agritourism.”
Once thought of solely as school tours, U-pick and fall festivals, agritourism has branched out as new rural residents tap a public interested in reconnecting with the country. Day camps, rural weddings and guided hunting and fishing have picked up in popularity, as have on-farm seminars and classes for which participants pay.
“The interest in local food is presenting new opportunities for farmers doing agritourism,” said Julie Fox, program director for the Direct Marketing Team at The Ohio State University South Centers, in Piketon. She said on-farm cooking classes are gaining popularity at farms in southern Ohio, as they already have at wineries nationwide.
In many ways, Hochstedler’s 160-acre Boondocks Farms reflects agritourism trends over the past decade. The farm serves as a base for educating area schoolchildren through its nonprofit Boondocks Educational Foundation, offering 18 different educational tours.
“We have age-appropriate curriculums about food, farming, forestry and wetlands,” said Hochstedler. “We have hosted more than 5,000 kids annually.”
The farm also features a disc golf course and an archery course with 30 3-D targets. Hochstedler, who first hosted fall festivals and a farmers’ market at his farm, said the property has evolved into more of a rural destination, with a pavilion and a new 4,000 square-foot climate-controlled lodge.
“We’ll do at least 18 weddings this year and we already have four or five booked for next year,” he explained.
Glass said Boondocks taps two definite agritourism trends. “We see everything from the simplest rural wedding for $1,000 to the bride that spends $40,000 at a high-end farm with horses and a white carriage,” she said. “And having a building where there can be corporate retreats has become very big, a different venue away from the business world.”
Last summer, Boondocks Farms also hosted a “Run for Your Lives,” a 5K obstacle course in which participants try to avoid people garbed as zombies, conducted by a Maryland production company. Glass said such events have become popular additions to farms already accustomed to hosting visitors, and she encourages ag operations to help participants in such events to still connect visitors with the farm.
“I believe agritourism is, at its core, helping people understand where their food comes from,” said Glass. “That is so important in our country, where more and more people are removed from the farm.”