For Brenda Thyssen of Triple B Produce Farm near New London, it was an abundance of tomatoes. For Dave Meuer of Meuer Farm at rural Chilton in Calumet County, it was a major overhaul in farming.
And for Kriss Marion of Circle M Market near Blanchardville on the border of Lafayette and Iowa counties in southwest Wisconsin, it was the establishment of a Community Supported Agriculture venture followed by the opening of a bed and breakfast facility.
The 'it' for this trio is the creation and operation of a business generally referred to as 'agritourism.' They described their experiences during a panel program that was part of an agritourism workshop held as a preconvention event by the Wisconsin Farmers Union with co-sponsorship by the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association.
Two breakout sessions with a total of six presenters were also held during the program which was titled 'Beyond Traditional Agritourism: Cultivating Community on Our Farm.'
Triple B produce experiences
Although she has operated a CSA with up to 60 members for nine years, the breakthrough for Thyssen came with the excess planting of 900 tomato plants in 2015 that led to pick your own invitations at $15 per bushel, along with already-picked tomatoes for $30 per bushel. For 2016, she plans to add beans and cucumbers to the on-farm offerings.
Thyssen traces her introduction to a CSA through a Wisconsin Public Television program at a time when she was accustomed to giving away extra garden produce. Through contacts with local community residents and organizations, she succeeded in 'getting urban people to come out' and pay for fresh produce, she said.
'People are curious,' Thyssen said. She takes advantage of that tendency not only with word of mouth promotions but also with a social media presence on Facebook and with a website at www.triplebproduce.com.
Triple B Produce also offers classes on how to can tomatoes safely, Thyssen noted. Her husband helps greatly with maintenance for the on-farm agritourism business.
CSA to bed and breakfast
When Marion and her family purchased 20 acres near Blanchardville and moved there from the Chicago area 10 years ago, they quickly launched a CSA that grew to 150 members. But she found some of the logistics to be overwhelming and reduced the number to 50 and then 25, though retaining an on-farm dinner privilege for the remaining group.
A bed and breakfast that opened in 2015 was full on weekends from April to October, Marion reported. He noted that some foreign visitors have stayed for up to one week.
Magazine articles and photos along with airbnb.com (a worldwide listing of rental lodgings) have helped to draw attention to Circle M Market's bed and breakfast. Marion has also organized a local farmer's market, enjoys the help of her husband Shannon in bookkeeping and has employed local youngsters and her own children over the years in operating the multi-pronged agritourism business.
The Marions raise sheep, steers, chickens, ducks and goats for wool, meat, eggs, milk and cheese. Marion also processes wool and offers fiber art, garden, cooking and exercise classes at the farmstead.
New type of farming
After milk prices tanked in 2009, Dave Meuer sought a different path for what was a traditional Wisconsin dairy farm between the Niagara Escarpment and the east shore of Lake Winnebago in southwestern Calumet County. The cows were sold in 2010, but the conversion to agritourism ventures had begun in 2009 with the creation of a corn maze attraction on a portion of the 150-acre farm.
That first venture brought about 6,500 visitors to the farm along Highway 151 in 2009, but that number hit 30,000 in 2015 with the addition of more activities and attractions during the interim, Meuer said. They include the establishment of a 400 square foot on-farm store at which maple syrup, honey and small grains grown on the farm are sold; the establishment of five acres of strawberry beds that offer pick your own; pumpkin and squash patches with several varieties; monthly 'Farm to Table' five course dinners catered by area restaurants and featuring foods grown on the farm; and numerous scheduled school group and tour bus visits, including 'mystery tour' groups.
While the strawberry picking appeals mainly to area residents, the opposite is true for the other activities and attractions, which serve as 'a destination' for people from the Fox Valley, Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago but not local people, Meuer pointed out. He noted that television, radio and print media advertising are arranged accordingly within a budget of $15,000 to $20,000 per year.
Record of achievements
The combined efforts of agricultural production, conservation of natural resources on a fragile landscape, and educating the public about those practices culminated in having Meuer Farm win the 2015 Aldo Leopold Conservation Stewardship Award.
The popular 45-minute, 2-mile wagon rides on the farm show visitors the plantings of black walnut trees, the 13 beef breed cows and calves which graze in 13 paddocks covering 45 acres on the farm, a food plot for many wildlife species and the honeybee hives, all of which were cited as credentials for the award.
To be successful in such a venture, the owner-operators 'need to be people persons,' Meuer stressed. He credits his wife Leslie, whom he married after venturing into agritourism, with improving the business practices and marketing — skills that she brought from the out of state architectural firm that she owned.
With 38 corn mazes in Wisconsin, Meuer reported that the attendance for it alone has plateaued at Meuer Farm. Employment still peaks at about 35 during the corn maze season from about mid-September to Halloween and reaches 10 to 15 during the early summer strawberry season.
For most occasions, Meuer Farm has a basic admission charges of $6 for children and $8 for adults; $4 and $6 respectively for the wagon rides; $9 and $12 for combinations of those two; and $8 and $12, respectively, for night time treks through the corn maze.
For the scheduled bus tours (usually 52 persons), there is a total package (including a luncheon) charge of $55 along with a required $500 deposit, Meuer said. He noted that one event involving 114 visitors from Minnesota led to having the tour director give 18 more contact references.
On average, a visitor to Meuer Farm spends about $14 while there, Meuer said. Cash, checks and debit and credit cards are accepted, but visitors with a card tend to spend 15 to 30 percent more.
During the first four years of the agritourism ventures, visitors came from 37 states and 38 other countries, Meuer said. They indicated this by putting a circle on a map that was posted at the farm.
After three years, based in part on the minimal net returns, a haunted house corn maze was discontinued and replaced by the pumpkin and squash patches. The combination of sandy loam, red clay and black soils on the farm allows for a diversity of plant species, he said.
Recent innovations have been the growing of oats, spelt and durum wheat (basis of pasta) and the development of a 'Farm Flavors' trademark for the packaged sale of those grains after they have been milled. Meuer finds that use of the Something Special from Wisconsin red stickers on packages helps to draw buyers. Another idea being considered is the selling of grass-fed beef.
Meuer Farm has also contracted with a craft brewer to provide a special beer for each of the five 'Farm to Table' dinners which are held on the third Thursday in May through September. The special flavors are maple syrup, honey, strawberry, oats and pumpkin.
The 'Farm to Table' meals quickly draw a capacity crowd of 80, most of whom live outside the immediate area, Meuer stated. The price is $60, $40 of which goes to the catering restaurant. Meuer Farm sells alcoholic beverages as its own enterprise at those dinners.
Meuer says others who are considering similar organized on-farm eating attractions need to be aware of the local and state regulations on licenses for selling beer and wines and how licensing also applies to restaurants, including the obtaining of a temporary restaurant license.
In the early stages of the on-farm meals, one of the catering restaurants unknowingly violated a procedure governed by licensing, Meuer acknowledged. Not long after that, a black vehicle carrying federal alcohol agents came to the farm — not the kind of visitor that Meuer prefers to see among the tens of thousands who come every year.