MINOOKA – Surely, when Minooka homesteader Abel Heap founded the family farm 148 years ago, he did not envision haunted corn mazes, hay-rack rides and educational tours for children.
But that is exactly what Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm in Minooka offers now that Abel’s great-great grandson, Kevin Heap, transformed several acres of cropland into a fully-functioning farm attraction.
The Heap operation represents a trend in agriculture known as agri-tourism, which is any agricultural activity that encourages, and profits from, interaction between city dwellers and rural farms – think hay-rack rides, you-pick berry patches and winery tours.
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New data shows that agri-tourism is a burgeoning business. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of agri-tourism operations in the U.S. grew by about 29 percent. These operations generated $704 million in farmer income in 2012 alone, a 24 percent increase from 2007, according to the Ag Census 2012.
These days, farmers aren’t selling just food – they are selling experiences.
The agri-tourism influx comes at a time when the local, organic food market is booming.
Much like farmers markets, where a customer can meet their food’s farmer in-person, agri-tourism is bridging the divide between the producer and consumer.
Grundy County Farm Bureau Manager Tasha Bunting thinks the popularity of agri-tourism and the local food movement are related.
“Consumers are becoming really interested in seeing how their food is grown, where it’s grown and how their farmer is tending to the land,” Bunting said. “That cultural shift is partly responsible for the increase.”
It is a shift Bruce Tammen has seen firsthand during his decades of managing Tammen Treeberry Farm in Wilmington, a you-pick blueberry and Christmas tree operation.
Tammen can remember when his customer base was mostly rural housewives who would pick several buckets of blueberries each day to use in canning and preserving.
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Now, his customers come from as far north as Chicago and as far south as Champaign, representing a multitude of nationalities and age groups.
“It’s so fascinating to be out in the field and hear all of the different languages being spoken,” said Becky Tammen, Bruce’s wife and co-manager of the farm. “We’ve seen a more multicultural crowd. I love it. I think it’s wonderful.”
The Tammens too have experienced an uptick in business. Bruce said, they no longer have to harvest the extra berries and send them away for processing at the end of every season. The customers will pick the bushes clean.
“I’ve been asked to go do farmers markets, but I never go. I have enough people coming here to keep me busy,” he said.
Like many agri-tourism attractions, the Tammen farm is complete with a picnic area and playground so customers can “make a day of it.”
Most local agri-tourism operations said they prioritize farm education by offering tours. Heaps farm schedules several elementary class tours to teach kids about how their food is grown, Heap Giant Pumpkin Farm Manager Kaylee Shell said.
“They not only learn about pumpkins, but agriculture in general,” Shell said. “It just gives them the chance to have fun and interact with agriculture.”