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"I want the family farm - the backbone of our country's heritage - to thrive and survive for future generations."

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It Was a Very Good Year!

By Jane Eckert

I was recently looking at the overall tabulations of my 2014 annual farm survey and I can summarize with six very positive words – “It was a very good year.” The majority of all farms experienced some significant sales increases over 2013 and the overall outlook by the farm owners for 2015 was very bright.

Our agritourism industry has certainly evolved over the past years and with the improved level of marketing knowledge, staff hiring and training practices, as well as the explosion of the variety of activities being offered by our farms, our sales have never been better.  I frankly don’t think any of us twenty years ago expected the corn mazes to become a fall industry, nor did we anticipate charging significant admission prices for people to walk on to our farms.

I’d like to share with you some of the interesting findings and my observations from my survey responses.

Everyone gets it! We are in the memory making business now. Our guests want experiences that they can’t find in the city and we are delivering on that demand. The corn maze business has now expanded into the night time bonfires, hayrides, haunt attractions & wagon rides, zombie paintball etc.  The daytime activities include zip lines, pig races, corn cannons, and cow trains, jumping pillows, gem mining, duck races, pedal karts and much more.

For many, our pick your own business—while perhaps down on picking volume—is up on guest counts, with increased pricing to match the experience.  Families enjoy being in our fields, they like tasting our products at the peak of ripeness and they are delighted that we are sharing our farms with them.  They are now considering us their family farm and quite willing to purchase our private label products.

Our guests are willing to pay for these experiences. As little as ten years ago, we were all experimenting with a general admission policy for our fall season farms, and now that it has become an accepted practice.  As farms continue to add more activities, the price keeps going up with only a little customer grumbling.  Our economy is doing better and people expect to pay for fun in the country.  While we will never get to the $100.00 daily per person rate now being charged by Disney, many farms are charging in excess of $15.00 a head and have people returning to the farm multiple times a season.

Farmers are not only following the conventional fall season activities, but also branching out to capture more guest dollars through weddings, corporate picnics, cooking & wine classes, birthday parties, concerts, restaurants, farm to table dinners in the field etc.  Our farm markets have begun to cater to the trend for prepared foods and deli products demanded by families today.  We are now offering artisan cheeses, local specialty foods, gifts and expanded bakery products.

We are even seeing the growth in hard cider production, wineries, breweries and distilleries now appearing on our farms.  Classes and workshops are being given at the state level to encourage farms to get involved in these businesses.

We continue to see the growth in special events and festivals as an important marketing approach to keep our guests returning to the farm on a regular basis and not just once in the fall season.  An expanding endeavor involves partnering with non-profit groups to host walks, runs, car shows, blood drives and so much more to reach out into our communities for their benefit (as well as ours—there even seems to be some local pride in helping our farms survive and prosper).
The Christmas tree farms are attracting more families with Breakfast with Santa, lighted displays, nativity scenes, holiday crafts and photo opportunities at the tree farm. There are farms that even offer horse drawn sleigh rides and cross country skiing in the winter.

Another growth area has been for farms to offer overnight lodging, camping, even an RV park, wildlife viewing, retreats and even yoga.  These activities are no longer just suggestions that the USDA might have put on a paper as opportunities for you to consider, but are activities being done by those that completed my survey.

At first we all might have viewed going into agritourism as somewhat of a risk and too much work.  Now, many have proven this really works and farm revenues can be increased and more family members can be employed on the farm. The successful agritourism operators are good business people.  They are willing to try something, tweak it and move on if doesn’t work.  However, in most cases what folks are trying has been working.

Interestingly, I don’t believe this phenomenal agritourism growth in the past twenty years could have occurred without the Internet.  The traditional marketing resources we had available to us “pre-Internet” were pricey choices which many small starting farms could not have afforded.  Now, with the Internet having so many practical marketing tools available to us at very low costs, every farm has an opportunity to look big without spending big dollars.

The farms that have embraced the Internet, developed effective websites and joined in the social media arena are finding new customers literally every day.  This is a good time to be in our industry, and fortunately the media has also come to understand what we do and want to help us tell our stories.

As we all look forward to a good growing season and prosperous 2015, let us all be thankful for those early adopters of agritourism enterprises who set a good path that so many of you are now following.  Like the corn maze, it’s pretty exciting to think about what’s just around that next corner!

Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.