Published July 21st, 2021 at 12:23 PM
Just off U.S. 24 in Lexington, Missouri, sits Fahrmeier Farm. Visitors find an old truck with the Fahrmeier family name written on the side, and a bed full of flowers and succulents.
It offers the perfect photo opportunity for influencers in floppy hats, color-coordinated couples and families as they flock to the farm to pick berries in the summer or pumpkins in the fall.
The Instagramability of the farm is not by accident. It’s a common feature in the booming industry of agritourism.
For the farmers involved, agritourism offers not only satisfying cottage-core aesthetics, but also an opportunity to educate visitors about agriculture while keeping their operations sustainable.
Agritourism venues range from pumpkin patches to homestead markets, vineyards and farm-style weddings. It’s a business that brings people to a working farm, usually as supplemental income to a farmer, and more and more farmers are adding agritourism elements to their businesses.
According to the Census from Agriculture, revenue from the agritourism industry tripled nationwide from 2002 to 2017, and it’s still on the rise in Kansas and Missouri.
“We think that agritourism is probably the number one growing sector of agriculture,” said Kelly Smith, senior director of marketing and commodities at Missouri Farm Bureau.
Smith said the extra income generated by agritourism is helping to bring young farmers back to the family farm, and to revitalize rural communities. The extra revenue from these endeavors can help smaller family farms remain profitable.
Agritourism is good for consumers too. Activities like berry or orchard picking (dubbed “U-pick”) are cost effective family day trips.
Smith said on-farm lodging and weddings are the fastest growing areas of agritourism. These farm stays have expanded beyond traditional bed and breakfasts to include Airbnb stays and private campsites, which are much more affordable and private than the traditional hotel.
“The people that are looking for on-farm lodging aren’t looking to stay in the Hilton, so to speak,” Smith said. “They’re looking just to get away (to) some peace and quiet.”
Smith said the Missouri Farm Bureau wants to make agritourism more accessible to farmers. It helps with promotion through a database of more than 500 registered agritourism locations, and helps to protect the farms, through the Missouri Agritourism Promotion Act, from frivolous lawsuits. Kansas has similar protections in place.
This means if someone pricks their finger while picking a pumpkin at Fahrmeier Farms, the family won’t go under fighting the lawsuit.
Colby Sharples-Terry, communications manager for Kansas Tourism, said the number of agritourism businesses in Kansas has been on the rise in the past 10 years, and now Kansas Tourism lists almost 400 agritourism venues on its website.
“A lot of farms (or) homesteaders are looking for that extra revenue, but they’re also looking just to share their knowledge about farming or gardening or whatever agritourism aspect there is,” Sharples-Terry said.
Unlike other sectors of tourism, agritourism saw a spike in participation due to COVID-19. Cain Mathis, owner of Big Springs Berries in Lecompton, Kansas, said his spread-out property made blackberry picking the perfect activity for people to get out and do something, without risking their health and safety.
“My wife says I shouldn’t say this, but (COVID) was like the single best thing for U-pick,” Mathis said. “I know that sounds terrible, but there were so many people that just wanted to get out and do something.”
Bret Fahrmeier said his farm grew in popularity last year, when grocery stores couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of the pandemic. He noted that a return to normal as the worst of the pandemic past can be seen in sales this summer.
“Last year, we couldn’t keep anything on the shelf or in the fields,” Fahrmeier said. “This year, it seems like they went right back to Walmart.”
Big Springs Berries is a five-acre blackberry farm that is fully sustained by U-pick visitors, farmers market sales and local wineries. But Mathis said that wasn’t always the case.
When the farm started five years ago, it didn’t generate enough traffic to sell all of the fruit at the farm, so the family sold the rest of their crop at grocery stores.
After one-too-many 4:30 a.m. deliveries, Mathis and his wife decided to do away with the stress of grocery store sales. He downsized the crop and decided to focus on local sales.
This summer, Mathis said he’s on track to have a full acre of his blackberries picked by visitors and the rest will go to farmers markets or wineries in the area.
“(Grocery stores) kept me so busy for four of five months that I just decided to scale back the operation and refocus on the U-pick and fresh market stuff,” Mathis said.
The Fahrmeiers started with a traditional farm, with large tomato crops and big distribution.
Before selling straight from the farm stand in their backyard, Bret Fahrmeier said he was waking up at 3 a.m. and driving to farmers markets five days a week, just to get back late in the afternoon to work the crops.
“I was just burning the candle at both ends,” he said.
Now the approach is to grow a lot less, but to make it more artisanal. This means the family grows heirloom and high-value crops like strawberries and blackberries.
“We grow a lot less and make about the same amount of money, or more,” Fahrmeier said.
The first year they sold pumpkins the goal was just to sell. But as the traffic started coming through, Bret and Lorin Fahrmeier realized that people wanted to stay the whole day and enjoy the farm.
“They buy the pumpkin from us because of the experience,” Bret Fahrmeier said.
The “sugar shack” was devised as a supplementary source of income to make the pumpkin patch a day trip, not just a pit stop. Here visitors can pick up a seasonally appropriate donut and slushie.
For the kids they’ve built a slide out of an old shed, a zipline and a massive tire swing. Sprinkles the goat stands by waiting for treats and pets.
“We want it to feel like we’re on a farm, not an amusement park,” Lorin Fahrmeier said.
And it works, particularly in the fall, when the wire tables and chairs are packed with families who stick around after picking their pumpkins.
Social media is a big element of the Fahrmeier’s business. It allows them to post hours, let people know when they’re serving donuts and give a sneak peak behind the scenes of the homestead.
“We’ve found that if we don’t post that we’re open, then we don’t have any customers,” Bret Fahrmeier said. “Social media has changed how we do everything. You have to tell people you’re open.”
All of this is done from the Fahrmeier’s smartphones, or from a smartphone hotspot, because even four miles outside of Lexington, the internet is too weak to be usable.
“You can’t get good internet out here,” Fahrmeier said.
On a rainy, cloudy day, Mathis rushed to Big Springs Berries early, afraid he’d have to tow cars out of the mud. But to his relief, he found everyone had parked near the top of the hill and were unaffected by the surprisingly heavy showers.
People didn’t mind the rain as they pulled up to pick the ripe fruit from the bushes. But other things, like his satellite internet connection, would be interrupted.
“I never really think of how hick that sounds, but yeah, if it’s raining, I don’t have any internet,” Mathis said.
Poor internet access means Mathis drives into town to do simple tasks like ordering equipment, or updating the hours on the business’s website.
Sharples-Terry, the communications manager for Kansas Tourism, said websites and social media pages are crucial for agritourism businesses to succeed. Slow, or sometimes non-existent broadband on these farms can be a big hurdle.
“I think internet is a basic need for life right now, but for this business, it’s huge,” Sharples-Terry said. “Getting internet to all Kansans is something that we should all be rooting for.”
To help, Sharples-Terry said Kansas Tourism promotes agritourism on its social media platforms.
Agriculture education is something the Fahrmeiers take seriously. They show visitors how to properly pick the fruit and explain the fat patterns in cuts of meat that make them more flavorful.
“It gives people an excuse to come to the country and enjoy what we have everyday,” Bret Fahrmeier said. “Agriculture is a big piece of what we do, but (agritourism) educates people about agriculture just as much as it (gives) people a good day trip.”
A rough frost reduced the blackberry crop at Fahrmeier Farms, but to the family, the experience adds to their mission of agriculture education for those who visit their farm.
Smith said many Missourians have never been on a farm. Visiting a farm for a weekend getaway or even to just pick a pumpkin can help contextualize the farming industry for those who have never been around it.
“In the Midwest, maybe two out of three people, probably, have not been on a working farm in their lives,” Smith said. “They’re just looking for education and, especially, entertainment.”
Visiting a U-pick farm or a homestead market makes a human connection to the food. Sharples-Terry said with so many Kansans disconnected from agriculture, a stop at these farms not only actualizes the phrase “farm-to-table,” but can lead to conversations around the land, its history and the people who tend it.
“You’re going to learn so much more than just where your food comes from,” Sharples-Terry said.
For Missouri and Kansas farmers interested in agritourism, it’s just a matter of filling out some forms and posting a sign on the property. Sharples-Terry said interested farm owners can learn more about the process by checking out the agritourism manual on the website.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.