Finding Family Fun Close To Home
by Michelle McNeal
The heat of summer is over and crisp breezes hint at the cold winter winds just around the corner. Yes, it’s autumn, a favorite time of year for those who enjoy the brilliantly painted landscape, the scents of bonfires and baking apples, and the sounds of leaves crunching beneath their boots. And as farm stands, pick-your-own places and pumpkin patches open, it’s a great time for families to explore the rich bounty Illinois farms offer.
This year, the Staleys have worked with EnerStar Electric Cooperative to make a corn maze in the image of Willie Wiredhand and EnerStar’s 70th birthday logo.
Open Sept. 13-Oct. 31. Hours vary. Visit www.pumpkinworks.com or phone 217-275-3327 for more information. EnerStar Electric Cooperative Day is October 18.
It’s called agritourism - farmers who put out the welcome mat for adults and children to come and explore their farms. From wineries and pumpkin patches to Christmas tree farms and pick-your-own orchards, the variety of farms involved is great. More than just the products they produce, these farmers offer an experience to families that keep them returning year after year.
A trip to the local pumpkin patch is, for many, as much a tradition as cutting down a Christmas tree, but without the cold winter winds and the chaos of December. It’s not about buying a pumpkin, something you could do at your local grocery store. It’s about the experience. With hayrack rides, haunted houses and other activities, it’s often an entire day of entertainment for the whole family.
Pumpkin Works in Paris, Ill. offers just that - entertainment - something they say is needed more and more in this age of higher stress levels.
“We’ve found that in hard times people need a break from their worries. The years that we’ve had money crunches and after 9-11 happened, we noticed that we provided a relief from the stress people felt and people need that kind of relief,” says Sherry Staley, who, along with her husband Paul, owns and operates Pumpkin Works.
More than 40,000 visitors come to Sherry and Paul Staley’s farm each year, and the couple doesn’t expect attendance to decline this year – even in the face of higher gas prices and tighter family budgets.
Others in the industry agree that small agritourism farms will see steady visitors.
Involved in or Interested in Agritourism?
Jane Eckert works with farms on an individual basis to grow revenue and sales based on her experiences with her farm and with visiting other farms. She develops Web sites for farms as well. You can subscribe to her e-newsletter and learn more about Eckert Agrimarketing at her Web site www.eckertagrimarketing.com.
Ross Ament is President of the Agriculture and Tourism Partners of Illinois. He is also an agritourism consultant that works with farms individually to help them grow their business. Learn more about him at www.amentassociates.com, or by calling 630-466-8024.
John Pike is an economic development educator with the University of Illinois Extension. He specializes in alternative agriculture enterprise development, value-added agriculture and agritourism. Contact him by e-mail at or call 618-453-5563.
“I don’t see gas prices causing many people to eliminate the traditional trips to the local patch or apple orchard,” says John Pike, Economic Development Educator with the University of Illinois Extension.
“Some people may choose to patronize farms or wineries closer to home rather than traveling to more distant attractions of the same type.” He says that some local farms may benefit from reduced travel patterns because of the affordability of products and the family-oriented experiences they offer.
“I think it’s safe to say that with a little planning, a trip to the pumpkin patch can be just as exciting for a family, and even more memorable, than a day at an amusement park or big league ball game - and at a fraction of the cost,” says Pike.
Agritourism has continued to grow in popularity the last 10 years and more and more farms are finding ways to draw visitors. For some, creating an experience is a way to escape from the rat race and move into the country.
“People move out here and buy five acres and grow something and want to market it. It’s not the roots of agriculture but they are producing something others can eat. It’s a new type of industry,” says Ross Ament, President of the Agriculture and Tourism Partners of Illinois and Agritourism Consultant for Ament Associates.
For most, like the Staleys, it’s a way to maintain their livelihood. The Staleys started Pumpkin Works 16 years ago after they sold out of their hog business and Sherry, an art teacher, lost her job when the school’s art program was cut. They had grown pumpkins as fundraisers when their children were in school and even sold some in their front yard. Taking that experience to the next level and adding a maze and haunted house created a way for the Staleys to supplement their soybean, wheat and rye farming.
“Soon, former colleagues of mine started asking about field trips,” Sherry says, and Pumpkin Works continued to grow.
Ament says a great agritourism location offers visitors four things: education, entertainment, reality and, as Staley mentioned earlier, an escape. Small farms can educate visitors on how the product is grown, what makes up a good product and the ways in which it can be used. Experiences like pick-your-own farms or pumpkin patches can teach children how important agriculture is to our society.
Want to Find a Pumpkin Patch or other
Agritourism Experience Near You?
web.extension.uiuc.edu/agritourism. Web site of the University of Illinois Extension listing strawberry patches, apple orchards, pumpkin patches and wineries as well as agritourism information and contacts.
www.ruralbounty.com. A North American searchable database of retail based farm businesses from pick your own to lodging to all sorts of enterprises, products, animals and such. You can search by product, things to do, shopping and dining, lodging, farmers markets, wineries or farm name. The searches are detailed so you’ll only find the information you’re after. The site features an e-mail newsletter and event listings as well. “No other national database like this exists,” says Eckert, creator of the site. “It will help people find places close to home, or if on vacation or visiting someone.”
www.agfun.com. A Web site by the ATPI listing Illinois attractions, Christmas trees, farmers markets, orchards, u-picks, pumpkin patches and wineries by region. They also offer a visitors guide that you can get by visiting the site’s contact page or calling 217-525-7980. “We are getting hits from all over the world. It’s very popular. We can tell people where to go, what the hours are and what to expect,” says Ament.
For example, the Staleys have added “The Old Manger Theatre” to teach about their products from planting to harvest; and through a partnership with EnerStar Electric Cooperative, they will have information on how rural electrification changed farm life 60 years ago.
The farm has a unique tie-in with the co-op because Paul Staley’s grandfather, A.E. Staley, was President of the Farm Bureau in 1939 and presided over the meeting that set the creation of the electric cooperative in motion.
“We try to be educational and good stewards of the land and we try to share that with others,” says Staley.
Farmers are also able to inform customers about their safe farming practices. Jane Eckert of Eckert Agrimarketing says being able to meet the person who grows your food and ask them questions is a great value to buying locally.
“People need to realize that we may need to pay more for food grown here rather than a tomato from Mexico but that our farming practices are safe and our farmers want to educate people on that,” Eckert says.
Visitors are looking for entertainment and can find a large variety of activities throughout the state, from picking their own food and taking a hayrack ride to visiting a working winery or enjoying a music festival. With 10 mazes, a haunted dungeon, a discovery zone, a pumpkin sling shot, toddler activities, a nature preserve and three hayrides covering more than 250 acres, Pumpkin Works seeks to offer plenty of entertainment for all ages.
With other pumpkin patches in the area, the Staleys found their niche in providing entertainment for older children, teens and adults. “No one else was doing that. High school and college kids come over and over. Parents have thanked us for providing a safe place for teens,” says Sherry.
Reality comes into play in this fall scene for those hosting an agritourism experience. Ament warns that small farms shouldn’t try to “be the Disney of the industry.” But you can’t just put up a sign at the end of the driveway either. There are a lot of issues that need to be considered, including safety.
“Farming is a dangerous occupation and visitors will need to know where they can and can’t go. Some visitors who have never have been on a farm won’t know the hazards,” Ament says.
Another factor to creating a successful business is to have something you can market easily.
“Today, it seems like the opportunities and ideas of agritourism are commonly considered and utilized by farms of all sizes,” says Pike. “This is very evident by the attendance at educational meetings offered by the University of Illinois Extension and by the calls I receive for information from around the state.”
Pike says that most agritourism businesses start out as a farm producing a product like pumpkins, fruits or vegetables. The tourism operation evolves as the farmer identifies they can add value to that product by incorporating an “experience.”
“Over time, the most successful businesses realize that they are in the tourism business as much as they are in the farming business,” he says.
Knowledgeable hayrack ride drivers at Pumpkin Works, Paris, IL inform guests of surrounding vegetation and trees and tell stories to keep children and adults intrigued about their surroundings.
Ament says the key is to make it easy for people to find small farms and to make sure that farms join together to package their entertainment in a way that the tourism industry can market the experiences.
The Agriculture and Tourism Partners of Illinois began six years ago to find a way to do just that, as well as to help develop agritourism. Through the partnership the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Illinois Bureau of Tourism, co-op extensions, local tourism bureaus and universities can work together for the local producers. Ament says that cooperative packaging could help some farms draw visitors from a greater distance. For example, a family who may not think it’s worth it to drive three hours to visit a u-pick strawberry field, might make that drive if they find a bed and breakfast, restaurant and winery located nearby.
But whether you want to make a weekend trip out of it, or just an afternoon, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for not too far from your home. So, take a scenic drive to a local winery, or load the kids in the car and visit a pumpkin patch. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find a new tradition to enjoy every autumn.
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