According to the food policy group Oxfam-America, more than 300,000 small farms have gone out of business in America over the last 20 years alone. Falling prices, imported produce and encroaching suburbs have all taken their toll on the family farm. But some farmers are finding new ways to keep their land and their lifestyles intact. More than a dozen of them in the Great Lakes states and southern Ontario are doing it by marketing their farms as a great place to visit. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bud Lowell reports from Hilton, New York:
According to the food policy group Oxfam-America, more than 300-thousand small farms have gone out of business in America over the last 20 years alone. Falling prices, imported produce and encroaching suburbs have all taken their toll on the family farm. But some farmers are finding new ways to keep their land and their lifestyles intact. More than a dozen of them in the Great Lakes states and southern Ontario are doing it by marketing their farms as a great place to visit. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bud Lowell has more from Hilton, New York:
“We all love the outdoors. It’s fun it’s something we can all relax at. Its not far from where we live and we love doing it.”
Brian Camp is in the middle of a 15 acre cornfield with his family and friends. They’re more than half-a-dozen people who drove to this farm in the Town of Hilton. They’re not farmers. They’re here to have a good time wandering through a maze:
“It’s an interactive game right in the middle of mother nature. It’s a 15 acre cornfield that we carved an intricate pattern into.”
Pat Zarpentine and her husband have run Zarpentine farms and its apple orchards for the last 25 years. This year, they’ve been trying out one of the newest tools small farmers are using to keep their land in the family. It’s called “agri-tainment” – packaging a visit to a farm as an experience that people will pay to share.
According to the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association, more than 400 farms in the United States and Canada are making money by turning at least part of their land into entertainment ventures. Charles Touchette is the association’s Executive Director:
“This is becoming very big. Especially in what we call direct farm marketing, where the people are encouraged to come to the farm directly or the farmer.”
The fall hayride at Zarpentine Farms circles land that’s been in the family since 1832. But today, the farm is under pressure from the expanding Rochester, New York suburbs. Foundations are being dug for new homes just a few hundred yards up the road.
Pat Zarpentine says she and her husband have been watching the Town of Hilton change:
“We’ve seen other people having to sell off lots and parcels to survive. But we wanted to hold onto this. There’s such a strong tradition here.”
Zarpentine Farms already sells directly to customers through a farm market. Pat Zarpentine says the family wanted something that would draw new customers, but be in touch with their farming heritage.
Some farmers have put in paint ball courses or motocross tracks. But the Zarpentine family found their answer through a Utah-based company called “The Maize” – that designs and cuts intricate mazes in cornfields:
“We deliberately chose a big maze. We wanted it so we could have the design so you couldn’t see from one path to the next path.”
The corn towers above your head in the maze and the wind rustles the stalks. You walk on beaten-earth paths, and follow clues in the form of riddles that can help you find the exit.
After about 45 minutes in the maze, 14-year-old Owen Camp and Shannon Popowich say it’s a good way to spend a Saturday:
“It’s a good way to spend a day…like when you have all day!”
Zarpentine Farms charges seven dollars a head for adults to wander through the corn maze. Pat Zarpentine says her family’s first experiment with agri-tainment hasn’t actually turned a profit. But she says the visitors have definitely boosted sales at her farm market, and the maze attracts the right people:
“We get a lot of families. It’s a good outing. It’s wholesome, a great time for family to come together and spend quality time enjoying the outdoors in a setting where most families don’t ever get an opportunity.”
Agri-tainment is a growing business. Charles Touchette of the Farmers Direct Marketing Association says it’s driven by a desire for some Americans to get back to their roots:
“It used to be a generation or two ago everybody knew their grandparents farm. Now that’s not the case – that’s three and four generations ago. It’s unique, it’s a novelty to most Americans yet it’s something that’s still in our blood – seeing some green grass and enjoying a favorite season.”
Touchette says there are no reliable numbers yet on how many farms in the U.S. are offering “agri-tourism,” but it’s growing aggressively as people start to appreciate farms at a different level. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bud Lowell.