Putting Agritourism Ideas to Work on Family Farms

How Two Families Used Farm Events as Money-Making Agriculture Businesses

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The big blue barn at Grandpa Tiny’s Farm, used for weddings and other gatherings.

Farming is tough. Often, farms stay afloat because one parent works outside the home. But agritourism ideas help both parents pay bills and create the lives they want for their families.

Ferrari Farms

When Frank Ferrari’s grandfather acquired property in 1912, he didn’t know the land would later sit beside the Reno, Nevada airport. He also didn’t anticipate that farming’s financial security would plummet. Ferrari farms grew row crops such as potatoes and onions. It had a feedlot. Frank’s dad used to butcher.

But things change. Frank now says it would be almost impossible for a small farm to make it by selling wholesale.

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He used to grow pumpkins for wholesale. When he had a few extra in 1997, he offered a tiny pumpkin patch at the farm’s front. It was a hit. The business grew and he added a corn maze. Then hayrides. Now, with a mechanical bull, a bounce house, and corporate parties, the Harvest Festival keeps growing. Frank tries to add a new agritourism idea each year.

Three years ago, he tried zombie paintball. Actors stumble around a field while participants stand in a tractor-pulled trailer, behind a row of mounted paintball guns. There’s also a corn walk, for smaller kids that get intimidated by acres of a corn maze. Today, zombie paintball, the maze, and hayrides are most popular.

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Paintball guns ready to fire at zombies.

Up to 20 local schools coordinate field trips, mostly for kindergarteners and first-graders. Scouting and church groups also arrive to pick pumpkins and run mazes. And the Ferrari Farms legacy matters. Some teachers have been coming for 16 years.

Frank says, “We have some people who came here as kids, bringing their kids now.”

And the fun doesn’t only happen in the fall. Frank hosts birthday parties, weddings, and graduations in an old barn. Spring brings Easter Egg hunts. Ferrari Farms started a Sunflower Festival in 2017, which was successful and will be a definite repeat. And each festival includes animals that people can see and touch, such as calves, donkeys, llamas, and pigs. Frank tries to get a variety because many kids don’t see livestock like that.

“The big thing is being innovative,” says Frank. “Starting something new and just knowing your customers.”

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Acres of corn maze sit before the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Frank’s kids grew as the business did. Now Conor, 19 years, drives tractors and works on the farm. Alexey is 17 and still in school but she helps on weekends. Frank’s fiancée, Petra, has another job but she handles marketing and social media.

Weather is the biggest challenge. 2015 brought drought and Frank had to truck in pumpkins. In 2016, rain crashed Halloween weekend, the biggest moneymaking time of the year. Those rains led to floods. Even wind has a huge impact and it’s difficult to predict weather’s effect on tourism.

One thing that doesn’t hurt business, though, is the rise of more local agritourism examples. If anything, Frank says, they have helped spread awareness that farm festivals are inexpensive family fun. Ferrari Farms is unique because it grows everything onsite, from pumpkins to the bales made from last year’s cornstalks. Casinos refer out-of-state visitors to the farm. Frank hosts other businesses just starting up, such as a lady who brought her ponies out for kids to see.

“We try to help people around the area,” says Frank. “To feed off each other. It’s a positive thing.”

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Frank Ferrari sits atop the tractor used to pull hayrides.

Grandpa “Tiny’s” Farm

Frankenmuth, Michigan is a Bavarian resort town built on a famous chicken dinner recipe. William “Tiny” Zehnder ran the Bavarian Inn but kept a farm on the side. With farming as his true passion, he dreamed that his land would be educational, teaching what kids don’t learn in school. He passed on in 2006 and the farm became a historical site.

Living in the suburbs, an hour away, Jonathan and Wendy Winkel visited Grandpa Tiny’s Farm for years. The caretakers, an older couple, paid bills by starting a petting zoo business on location. The Winkels realized they were visiting two to three times a week and when the caretakers decided to retire, Wendy immediately offered, “What about us?”

The Winkels moved to Grandpa Tiny’s Farm in autumn of 2016, started rejuvenating land and buildings, and implemented their own agritourism ideas.

At first, they worried how their kids would adjust. Wendy says, “I thought it would be more of a transition but they took to it right away.” Gwenneth, 8 years, loves animals and helps care for the chickens and peacocks. Five-year-old Rowan may be able to help out, in the future. “Mainly, he plays in the dirt.”

Grandpa Tiny’s farm sits at Frankenmuth’s forefront and the farm needs to look as beautiful as the town. As caretakers, the Winkels perform maintenance and keep the land presentable. They secure buildings to protect artifacts and history.

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The big blue barn at Grandpa Tiny’s Farm, used for weddings and other gatherings.

The family business includes agritourism ideas like operating a petting zoo and hosting weddings in the big blue barn. Farming is done the heritage way: with vintage tractors and without chemicals. The Winkels use 60 acres for growing crops and selling eggs, but they have a plan.

“Because it’s a small farm, we are trying to maximize,” says Wendy. Corn and soybeans wouldn’t support the farm. “So we are doing specialty crops such as lavender, the strawberry you-pick, the cider mill.”

Traditional crops, such as hay and oats, feed their livestock. But the strawberries they put in this year, and the apple orchard they’re building, will help sustain farming costs. It’s very strategic.

Perhaps their most fulfilling agritourism idea is the continuation of Grandpa Tiny’s dream. Kids bus in from Flint and Saginaw to learn about area history, farm animals, and where their food comes from. Most are inner-city children who have never seen a sheep or petted a bunny.

“They’re amazed when I pull an egg out of a nesting box and tell them where eggs come from and that chickens lay eggs.”

While Wendy talks about bees, chickens, and eggs, Jonathan teaches how crops turn into food.

The community, especially the school system, is supportive of the Winkels’ work.

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Rowan and Gwenneth Winkel take to life on the farm

Grandpa Tiny’s Farm and Ferrari Farms prove that agritourism ideas aren’t limited to pumpkin patches and bed-and-breakfasts. Innovation and “paying it forward” help both farms thrive and provide wholesome family lifestyles.

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