WI women share advice on diversifying farm operations
Women make up 30% of the total number of US farmer operators. As more and more women are playing a vital role in today’s farm operations, HerFarm Network was developed to help provide education on critical farm operations, share stories and experiences that can help others, and provide an opportunity to network with other women in the industry.
During a recent virtual panel discussion sponsored by Landmark’s HerFarm Network, Megan Daluge and Theresa Schuster shared their stories and offered advice to farm women looking to diversify and provide farm entertainment and education.
Schuster’s Playtime Farm started 27 years ago as a pumpkin patch when Theresa and her husband Don were searching for a niche in agriculture that would allow them to raise their children on a farm. Eventually they added a hay wagon to let children pick their own pumpkins. From there they gradually added more including animals, corn maze, jumping pillow, cider donuts, gemstone mining, pig races, caramel apples, pygmy putt-putt and more.
“I believe giving children a chance to live and work on a farm is the best thing parents can do for their children,” she says. “This is something our whole family can be involved in.”
Each year the farm welcomes 45,000-50,000 guests but Schuster says it didn’t happen overnight.
“We learned from our experiences and listened to what people said they wanted,” she notes. “We grew gradually adding new things each year.”
Megan Daluge said they started their farm tours as a way to diversify their family dairy farm without expanding in size. She and her sister Erin Grawe are partners in their family’s dairy farm and share their passion for dairy and educating the public about their lives on the farm. They decided to open up their fifth generation dairy farm to tours, field trips and farm camp.
The Janesville sisters had been serving as Rock County’s agriculture ambassadors so the tours seemed like a logical next step.
“It’s not a lot of investment except for our time,” Daluge says.
Their father, Peter, has been extremely supportive of them and their ambitions to continue the family’s dairy farming tradition.
They siblings started in 2019 and had great success so they decided to expand a bit in 2020. They had a special wagon made for hay rides and never got a chance to use it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They hope to pick up where they left off this year and as of now they are fully booked.
“We did some smaller family tours in 2020 but that is all,” Daluge said.
COVID also changed how the Schusters did business but they were able to continue with some adjustments.
“Our farm goals have always been to educate, have fun and be safe,” Theresa says. “In 2020 we kept all activities outside, we pre-packaged things that we never needed to do before and were careful to follow all the (CDC) guidelines. People felt safe outside and thanked us because they were happy to be able to get out doing something.”
Asked about how they advertise and promote, Daluge said she worked with a friend who is a communications specialist and she also promoted the tours and camp on social media.
Schuster says their business grew mostly from word-of-mouth. “Twenty-seven years ago when we started there was no social media. We do use it now but still rely on our customers spreading the word.”
The two also shared what they have learned from experience. Schuster says, “Just because you think something is working, don’t stay on the train. You need to change with the times.”
Daluge says she learned a lot about running the farm camp by visiting with Jackie at Roden’s Farm Adventures.
She also learned to set a minimum when it comes to offering individual family tours.
“Time is valuable to us since we don’t have any outside labor on our dairy farm," she pointed out. "It takes just as much time to offer a tour to two people as it does for 10. As for our farm camps, we need to make sure we cover our costs.”
Both agree it is important to check into insurance requirements, and local and county restrictions and regulations.
Schuster says, “We invited our insurance agent to come out to see exactly what we are doing. Having outside eyes is really great.”
Both post signs provided from the Wisconsin Agri-tourism Association regarding warnings and what to expect when touring a working farm.
Both Schuster and Daluge enjoy the comments from visitors. Schuster says she gets questions about family farms and inquiries about how they can work on the farm.
Daluge says they field numerous questions about the babies on the farm and the breeding as well as why they take the newborn calves away from their mothers. She sees this as an opportunity to provide beneficial information to consumers who know nothing about dairy farms.
Both agree children are inquisitive about “poop” and odor and seeing animals poop is generally the first things they react to on a tour. This natural animal function provides an opportunity to share some farm facts with young visitors. Once they have addressed this question, the children settle down and are willing to listen to other information on the tour.
Daluge says she views tours as a real opportunity to tell the true story about agriculture.
“Hearing about farms in the news and on social media is like drinking through a fire hose,” she says. “There is so much information out there and we can help sort through it all for people and when they actually see it and meet us they remember and understand.”
Schuster adds, “I work in a school, and kids and education is where my heart is. We have been blessed with this farm and we are temporary caretakers. Social media can be hard on farmers and this is a way we can tell our stories.”
About 45 participants took part in the HerFarm discussion and had numerous questions.
Daluge advised anyone interested in inviting visitors to their farm to just do it.
“Don’t worry about who else is doing it because every farm is different,” she says. “If you do this, set boundaries and don’t let the visitors interrupt your personal life. Don’t give tours if you are not happy with what you are doing.”
Schuster cautions to start small and with your heart.
"Don’t invest a lot of money without first doing a business plan and talking with others about it," she said. "And make sure your family is in agreement with what you are doing.”
Daluge feels what they are doing is a good way to promote milk and she says she hopes that some time in the future they may be able to expand into bottling their own milk and having an on-farm dairy store.
Schuster hopes their family farm tour business will continue into the next generation. She says their family shares in their enthusiasm to tell the agriculture story through farm tours and activities.
Landmark’s HerFarm Network workshops will continue with a June workshop on balancing work and life on the farm; August workshop on farm financials; September workshop on Direct Farm-to-Market sales.
Visit herfarmnetwork.com for more details or check Facebook at facebook.com/groups/herfarmnetwork.