What happens when you combine two of Wisconsin’s strongest industries? When it comes to agriculture and tourism, there’s a sweet spot — known as ag tourism — that provides farmers with additional income, injects money into the local economy and educates people about agriculture.
Ag tourism is what it sounds like: tourism focused on agriculture. It can be on a small scale, such as Mulberry Lane Farm near Hilbert where visitors can chase a chicken, milk a cow or pet a goat, or a large scale such as the new 29,000-square-foot Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center outside of Manitowoc where visitors can learn about where their food comes from in interactive, hands-on exhibits and visit a dairy farm.
“Ag tourism brings together agriculture, an $88 billion industry in Wisconsin, and tourism, which adds $20 billion to the state’s economy,” says Sheila Everhart, president of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, which has hundreds of members across the state. “People may not realize when they got lost in a corn maze, picked their own strawberries or visited a dairy farm that they’ve experienced ag tourism.”
When Mulberry Lane Farm opened in October 2005, owner Bonnie Keyes says 500 families visited that first month. Last year, 15,000 people visited the farm between mid-September and the end of October.
“We have a lot of families who come, whether it’s millennials who bring their kids and want them to experience nature or grandparents who grew up on a farm or around a farm and want to share that experience with their grandchildren,” Keyes says. “We provide so many hands-on experiences.”
It’s not just October that’s busy, as visitors come throughout the spring and summer, whether they are locals or visitors who want to experience a farm, Keyes says. During EAA AirVenture in July, visitors flocked to the farm because “they’re in Wisconsin and they want to milk a cow,” she says.
That interest in learning about farms and where food comes from drove the creation of the $13 million Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, which is located just off Interstate 43 in Manitowoc. Executive Director Lauren Rose Hofland says the center’s aim is to help educate the 98 percent of people who do not work on farms or understand where their food comes from.
Hofland says the goal is to attract 100,000 people per year and have those visitors spend money at nearby businesses, whether it’s gas stations, retail shops or restaurants.
“The center also has a convention center where we can serve up to 200 people for a dinner,” she says. “That’s another option for organizations or people looking to hold events, and that money comes into the local economy.”
The center not only wants to attract visitors from the New North, but across Wisconsin and beyond, Hofland says.
“There’s nothing out there like the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center. The center is ideal for everyone to visit since so many of us know so little about where our food comes from,” she says.
Farms also are a popular location for weddings, Keyes says.
“Our weddings have an average of 200 guests, and that brings in much-needed ag tourism dollars to rural Calumet County and the Fox Valley hotels, bars, food caterers, beverage caterers, florists, hair salons, bridal attire stores, etc.,” she says. “Agritourism and barn weddings have a wonderful trickle-down effect in many ways most people don’t consider.”
Steve Nagy, owner of Homestead Meadows in Greenville, agrees couples like the idea of having a farm backdrop for their weddings.
“We easily host 60 weddings a year — people want to be back in a natural setting,” he says, adding that students also visit his farm to learn more about wetlands and ecology.
Everhart of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association and owner of Everhart Family Farms in Rock County says the increased interest in visiting farms and other ag attractions is simple: “People want an experience in agriculture and we’re happy to provide that.”