Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Farming For Agritourism Dollars

Farming for Agritourism Dollars

Jane Eckert in the orchard
    A 6th generation farmer, Jane Eckert grew up with a first hand view of the rigors of farm life “where one night of bad weather can wipe out a year of hard work.” So after picking up a business degree, she left home to work at Atlantic Richfield in L.A. After several years in executive marketing positions, Jane decided to help the family fruit farms in Belleville, Illinois develop  agritourism business because “it is very hard to make living selling wholesale crops.”  The farm now features  Eckert’s Country Store,   which offers a full line of produce, meats, wines, bakery, and deli  products, as well as country favorites such as preserves, pickles and buckwheat pancake mixes; it also has added  a  320-seat restaurant.  Because Eckert Farms,  currently managed by 5 family members, attracts some 500,000 customers a year, Jane’s marketing reputation spread quickly.  In 2001 she founded  Eckert Agrimarketing with a  lofty  mission “to help the family farm—the backbone of our country’s heritage-- thrive and survive in future generations.”
      To supplement her  agritourism programs, Jane Eckert offers farmers web site development through Eckert’s Marketing Farm Web Design “to help them market their products 24/7.”  Her best source of new clients is her many appearances as a speaker for farm associations and state tourism or commerce departments looking to spur new business opportunities. Jane has also authored six books on agritourism and produces DVDs to promote direct farm marketing; she recently created a data base of farms, called, to help farmers market retail businesses  and to assist  tourists in finding farms to visit.
     Because farmers are traditionally conservative, Jane’s advantage was that she was one of them with a track record based on what she had accomplished at her family farm.   With new clients, Jane typically  schedules a two-day onsite visit during which she walks the farm, assessing the condition of buildings and grounds, talks to key employees, and clarifies the family’s expectations. She then follows up with a detailed marketing plan with layout, suggesting utilization of various buildings, product selections, along with a step by step implementation plan. To date she has worked with over 110 clients, including farms, ranches and wineries, which offer a variety of retail experiences. The target market is usually urban families eager to give children a view of the ever vanishing lives of earlier generations. Not all  farmers make the move easily, Jane Eckert observes, because they are “typically not very good at marketing, nor do they realize  what urban families seek  in a farm experience.”
Becky Walters at work
         Often it’s farm women, Jane says, who are first to recognize the opportunity inherent in what is sometimes called ”agritainment.”  And once they begin the project, the transformation becomes ambitious-- and sometimes more profitable than farming. One happy client is Becky Walters who hired Jane after hearing her speak.  Becky and her  husband  had pretty much given up on making a living from their traditional crop farm, 30 miles northeast of Wichita,  until Becky  caught  the “agritourism bug.” She had already planted a few rows of pumpkins as a hobby, but Jane Eckert “took us to another level.”  Eventually Becky decided to leave a career managing doctors’ offices   to expand their fall pumpkin program into a year round venture,  encouraged by the knowledge that consumers now spend as much on Halloween as they do on Christmas. The result is Walters’ Pumpkin Patch which covers 76 acres of the original 1700-acre Walters farm, and attracts some 30,000 visitors in six weeks each fall; annually it produces over $250,000 in revenues.  For the admission price of $10 per person, families typically spend the whole day picking pumpkins, enjoying paddle boats on a pond as well as  underground slides, jumping  pillows, a corn bin, a mining sluice where children sift for fossils or precious stones, topped off  with a visit to a Haunted Cannery, “too scary for children.” Once the patch is closed for the season, Becky stays busy all year collecting and crafting  gourds  putting up vegetables and preserves for the 3000 -square foot gift shop; she also overseeing the use of the farm’s covered pavilion  as a wedding venue for which Becky and her staff provides catering.

Anna Lyles  in Mesilla Valley
    Another enthusiastic client is Anna Lyles,  who with her husband farms some 2000 acres of chili peppers in Las Cruces, New Mexico , close to the Mexican border. When her five children were young, Anna asked her husband to carve out a ten acre corn maze to entertain them. Eventually word spread and neighbors and schools asked if they could share the farm fun. Gradually  Anna’s  primary motivation  became converting the  farm  into an educational opportunity for children “who had lost all touch with the farm life that provides their daily food.”
       After meeting Jane Eckert through a state-sponsored  farm program,  Anna hired her with the result that  she has since expanded her corn maze into the  45-acre Mesilla Valley Farm Maze. The maze, whose design changes annually, features  signposts with educational information and questions (wrong answers lead children to a dead end so they have to go back to try again). Anna has also created a 150-seat open air classroom that offers a curriculum she has developed to meet state educational standards.  To date, Lyles Farms has hosted over 200,000 school children from New Mexico and Texas.  As a result of her efforts,  Lyles Farms has been recognized as “the best ag-based field trip in North America”; in addition, Anna Lyles  has been named “Educator of the Year”  for the State of New Mexico. 
      But Anna makes sure her farm offers plenty of family fun too. A visit offers tourists hayrides, a playground with five giant slides, a pumpkin patch, and  a farm store,  stocked with jams and jellies.  With admission of $10 for adults and $8 for children, the  Mesilla Valley maze attracts 50,000 visitors each fall, who add about $250,000 to farm revenues. Anna takes particular pride in her ability to host a fall harvest in a desert  where “we don’t have crisp fall air or frost on our pumpkins; in fact, the temperature is typically in the 90’s in October!”
    For the future, Jane Eckert is very optimistic about the growth of agritourism especially set against a backdrop of the nationwide vogue for local and organic foods. Increasingly, Jane notes, ‘urban parents want their children to experience a life their grandparents knew firsthand or simply to understand where their food comes from.” And she knows just where to send them!



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