Agritourism to the rescue
HERSHEY, Pa. (March 13, 2018) — After major losses in their wholesale green bean crop, Billy and Michele Collins had to make a change in order to keep farming. They opted to expand their Fair Weather Farms’ agritourism component and retail sales and though it’s brought new challenges, it’s grown every year and stabilizeed the farm.
The Collinses, who farm in Rocky Hill, Conn., shared their experience with farmers at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention this winter.
Michele told the crowd that disease issues in 2010 had wiped out about 250 acres of their green beans and the following year they saw what was shaping up to be their best crop in 40 years submerged by flooding from Hurricane Irene.
We were basically handed an ultimatum by our loan rep,” she said. “Three-Quarter of our business was devoted to wholesale. That’s way too many eggs in one basket. The solution for us was to downsize and diversify.”
In 2010, retail and agritourism revenue was 4 percent of the farm’s overall income. Adding attractions and major effort each year to grow that part of the business, they’ve increased revenue to 20 percent last year.
They increased crop diversity to 75 different varieties and upped the acres of crops for retail sale to 75.
After two years into the fall festival and pumpkin patch, they expanded the handicapped accessibility to the farm activities to accommodate groups with special needs.
Now half of the school groups that come to the farm utilize that access.
“I’m pretty proud of that only because we give them an opportunity to be somewhere where nobody else is,” Michele said.
Starting a community supported agriculture program in those years also saw strong growth, from starting at 120 members to 550 last year. Further, having the retail market as a pick up location for CSA members doubled sales on those days at the market, Michele said.
Installing a grain corn play area was a big hit the first year and has only grown in popularity, Michele said.
“On a busy weekend, you will not be able to see the grain corn because there’s so many kids in there,” she said. “We need need a full-time staff member at the grain corn pit now to just keep everybody in check. That’s an area we never really thought we were going to need somebody.”
Now the corn pit is under a roof, stretches more than 3,000 square feet and includes a backyard-size playground.
“I would put in a grain corn pit before I put anything else in,” she told a convention attendee who asked what the top attraction is on the farm.
Other attractions include a separate pedal cart tracks for children and adults, a scarecrow walk, a jump pillow, a tire playground, corn maze, round bale maze and farm animals.
“We actually add an attraction ever yyear,” said Michele. “That’s our goal, otherwise people complain.”
Having a large sign at the entrance outlining the activities with pictures has been helpful for new attendees, Michele added.
“Having it laid out for people when they walk up really does help them understand what their going to get into because from where they come into from the parking lot they can’t see all the activities,” she said.
Not every attraction was a hit, though. After three years, Michele said they cut out birthday parties.
“It’s a nightmare. It’s not worth it for us,” she said. “I just found the requirements of mothers to be too taxing and too demanding for me.”
A pumpkin decorating tent also was short-lived.
“If you’re ever tried to manage crafts with children, that’s basically what it was,” Michele said. “It was a massive tent with glitter everywhere and children screaming. The people loved it but we could not do it with the number increase we were seeing from the first year.”
Last year, one big change was getting rid of wagons to shuttle pumpkins and other purchases from the activity area to the parking lot. While it may have allowed for more purchases and given families another photo opportuity, Michele said they were using up valuable staff members to gather wagons left in the parking lot and several wagons were either backed over or otherwise destroyed each year. Michele said it wasn’t a popular decision with many customers but was still the right choice for the farm.
“It’s a balance that we found and we have to look at things and if they don’t work for us, they don’t work for us,” she said. “And we can’t make everybody happy and that’s hard because I want to make everybody happy but I’m learning more and more that that’s OK.”
Judging by their increases in attendance, more people are coming and leaving pleased with the experience. Last year, attendance exceeded 40,000 where the first year they saw about 5,000 people come out.
That’s brought on new challenges and led to changes as well. While the farm had a pay one price philosophy for all the activities from the start, Michele said they offered different pricing that included a pumpkin. Last year the Collinses streamlined to one price per person and everyone took home a pumpkin.
The moved saved staff time in not having to police who should and should not have a pumpkin, Michele said.
The bulk of their visitors come on the three weekends around Columbus Day and dealing with those crowds remains a challenge, Michele said.
“No matter how hard you try to get them there earlier — we offer discounts, we offer special grandparent weekend, military weekend — all these things that we do to entice them to come earlier, they still come the same weekend and complain that it’s crowded,” she said.
People were waiting more than an hour to buy tickets on some days and 45 minutes to get food. They ran out of pumpkins on one day and the rush of people when more pumpkins arrived turned dangerous.
“People were actually pushing and shoving and we actually had to get staff members to keep people off the trailer,” Michele recalled.
They’ve seen theft increase on the farm as attendance has climbed too.
“You can only do your best to cover yourself for it,” Michele told the crowd of fellow direct marketing farmers, many nodding in agreement.
Perhaps their biggest challenge is securing the employees to match the needs of the farm as it grows. The fall festival area and farm market employs about the same amount as what needed in the field for crop production and as they’ve grown, other farms in the area have also, putting more pressure on finding quality workers.
But the expansion of retail sales and move into agritourism have helped the farm toward its goal of diversifying to stay viable. Michele said sales have increased in all areas including wholesale. Growing less acres of green beans has given them more control in selling them.
“We are receiving better money for wholesale because we have less to offer,” she said. “I’m not saturated so I can find someone else to take it.”
Michele said the change in their business hasn’t made them any less busy and still struggle to get quality time off the farm together. But they are spending more time together on the farm.
“We hope this will allow our children to continue in agriculture as it changes,” she said.
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