One afternoon in 2010, Greg Clement sat back and gazed over his 120-acre apple orchard, but he couldn't relax. He had a nagging feeling that something was missing from the farm he had just purchased.
Before the Clements purchased the farm, there had already been a long-standing event in mid-September called the Johnny Appleseed Festival.
COURTESY OF MAPLESIDE FARM.
The computer software businessman - named as one of the "Top Ten Most Influential People Online of 2010" by Fast Company magazine - is now owner of Mapleside Farm (www.mapleside.com) in Brunswick, Ohio. He was thinking not like a farmer, but like the entrepreneur he was.
"I thought: 'What else could we be doing to grow our revenue steadily all year round?'" says Clement. He started researching some things he and his wife, Kelly, could add to the farm.
"I had heard the term 'agritourism,' but I didn't know what it was, so I started to go to workshops and agritourism events to get ideas," he recalls.
By the start of the next farm season, Clement not only had a firm grasp of what agritourism meant, but had implemented a series of agritourism events at Mapleside that netted the farm over $1 million last year. Clement is working to share his successful ideas with the U.S. farming community. He calls himself the "agritourism coach" and has written a free e-book (downloadable from his site, www.agritourismcoach.com) with 101 ideas to make agritourism work on a farm.
"Farms all over America are struggling big-time financially," says Clement. "But I believe that agritourism is one guaranteed method farmers can [use to] increase their income significantly."
Why agritourism works
Clement says that the term "agritourism" goes much deeper than simple hayrides. "It is a way to connect people to a farm," he says.
However, Clement believes that most farms don't capitalize on the one asset they have that most U.S. families crave: an authentic American experience. "The average American farmer is sitting on a gold mine, but they need help unlocking that," he says.
People are willing to pay money for a real farm experience, he notes, but they also want to be entertained. Families want something deeper than a farm jazzed up to look like a theme park; they want real places that create real memories for their family.
His own 200-year-old farm consists of 4,000 apple trees plus rows of pick-your-own grapes, raspberries and pumpkins. It had the beginnings of agritourism even back in the 1920s and '30s when a restaurant and bakery were built on the property to encourage visitors to stay longer.
"But people were only using 3 out of the 120 acres," he says. "We wanted people to enjoy more than that."
How Mapleside Farm attracts visitors
Clement, who wanted to engage visitors beyond apple picking, planted what he says is the largest corn maze and pumpkin patch in Ohio - 32 acres total.
He then had playground equipment constructed using repurposed items already on the farm, plus hay bales with plastic sheeting to create a slide, and a "jump park" - a 70-foot-diameter jumping pillow. There were also hayrides and a cow train.
"Build it and they will come" was not Clement's philosophy. He needed to convince people that coming to the farm would be fun and worth their time and money. "Even successful agritourism farms still struggle with getting people there ... I knew I could take what I knew about marketing and apply it to the farm," he says.
People needed to get used to coming to the farm outside of the usual once-a-year pick-your-own experience. One way to get a steady flow of visitors - an idea Clement got from talking to successful agritourism farmers at workshops around the country - was to provide live, free music on the farm.
Concerts on the farm
"Some farms already do this, but it's a random event. My feeling is that people need regularity, an event they can rely on every week," he says. So Mapleside Farm booked live music acts every weekend from June until the end of October. "Every Friday night," he says. The concerts were free, but the farm added a food tent and sold soda, sandwiches and hot dogs; they then got a temporary liquor license and sold beer and wine. They promoted the concert via its email list, Facebook and through local ads.
The first concert attracted about 200 people. "The second concert we had 800 people," Clement says. By the end of October the free concerts were pulling in about 1,500 people every Friday night. They made approximately $8,000 to $12,000 per night in concession stand sales. This year, the farm will charge a $2 admission fee per person to beef up their profits even more.
The second event that brought people to the farm was a farmers' market. Since there are other regional farmers' markets on the weekend, Clement decided to host one during the week, on Tuesdays from 3 to 7 p.m. He invited 22 other farms to join the market and charged $12 per week for a booth. Since the farmers' market went through the dinner hour, he not only got visitors to the farm and sold his own fruit, but people also stayed to eat at the farm's restaurant.
The biggest moneymaker for Mapleside Farm, by far, has been the concept of "Pumpkin Village," a series of eight consecutive festival weekends held in the fall.
Before the Clements purchased the farm, there had already been a long-standing event in mid-September called the Johnny Appleseed Festival, which was a tradition in the region for 35 years. "I had been coming to Johnny Appleseed since I was a kid," says Clement.
Clement wanted to create a "whole-season concept" that kicked off with Johnny Appleseed and extended through Halloween. The result was "Pumpkin Village." The seven weekends brought in a total of 125,000 visitors, making it the biggest attraction in northeast Ohio. "Bigger than the country fair," he notes. "And the revenue it brought in was more than January, February and March combined," he adds. Admission is $12 per adult and $6 per child.
"If a farm does agritourism right, it can do five to 10 times more income than by farming alone," he says. "This can help a farm remain viable, pay down debt."
Success: planning and a good manager
Juggling all these events may seem mind-boggling to the average farmer, but Clement, who hired a full-time event manager, says that farms can start small and work their way up as they achieve success. "A farmer who has never pulled together an event should start small, ease into agritourism," he says. "Do it in phases."
Joshua Schmidt, Mapleside Farm's festival director, previously worked with Clement at his software company.
"A farm doesn't necessarily have to have a full-time festival director; the key is to have a plan that can be implemented by people who are part of your farm," says Schmidt.
Another key to a successful agritourism plan is a great email list. Start gathering names and emails from your farm guests, even if you have to bribe them with a giveaway or other freebies. "As your email list grows, it is literally push-button marketing - and the easiest and cheapest," says Schmidt. Last year the farm grew its email list from 5,000 to 20,000 just from simple pumpkin giveaways and contests.
Facebook is also an important part of the farm's marketing strategy. "It is the quickest way to communicate with people, especially if we had to cancel anything because of weather conditions," says Schmidt.
One other marketing idea that Mapleside Farm will implement this year is sponsorships, particularly from media companies such as daily newspapers and local magazines. "Ask the media to sponsor your agritourism event in exchange for advertising; provide them with a banner in the entrance to your corn maze and in return you might get $3,000 or more worth of advertising," says Schmidt.
Schmidt admits that the farm got out quickly from the gate with ambitious agritourism plans - some that worked very well, and others that did not. At Mapleside, summer festivals did not work quite as well as fall festivals. The fall, says Schmidt, is when people think about visiting a farm. "That's when they have the spirit of seeing a farm," he says. This year they will stick with just concerts in the summer and festivals in the fall.
Start small and simple, but do it with gusto
One easy way to jump into agritourism, suggests Schmidt, is to create a 5-acre corn maze, and charge an entry fee. It may cost about $2,000 to design and create the maze, but the return on investment for the season can be as much as $20,000 to $40,000.
If that is successful, the next year try branching into offering hayrides and create bonfire events that cater to youth groups and college students. "During midweek, we rent out small sections of our farm, have a bonfire, provide s'mores and a hayride and charge $6 to $8 per person," says Clement.
Other seasonal ideas that have worked for Mapleside include a Santa's workshop - a visit with a Santa, a barn converted into a "Santa's workshop" craft room, a sleigh ride and a full breakfast for $20 per person. He hosted 600 people and sold out all four sessions.
The thing is to start with something you are most comfortable with and that fits into the atmosphere of your farm. "Corn mazes, pumpkin patches work incredibly well, but you have to cater to your demographic and do what fits into your farm, then do it incredibly well," Clement notes.
Any agritourism event you do has the potential for a decent return on investment. "It doesn't have to be complex," notes Schmidt. For example: Get a roll of big plastic and put it on a hill as a slide, surround it with bales of hay, call it a "hay chute." Post it on Facebook and send out an announcement via email to your list. "Things like this are inexpensive to do and will bring people out to your farm," says Schmidt.
Families, he notes, are looking for things to do. "Families are looking for fun activities to do with their kids; they're tired of the mall, the movies, Chuck E. Cheese's," he says. "Once you get moms involved and they like the experience, believe me, it becomes viral."
Schmidt recently conducted a simple survey of 150 of the farm's visitors about what they would like to see on the farm: "They want the simple things. They said things like, 'don't put in go-carts; don't do commercialized gimmicky things.' What they want are things that complement the simple farm experience," he says. "So stick with simplicity when implementing new ideas, keep it farm-themed and think longevity."
Whatever you do, adds Clement, do something this year. "It's not an idea that makes money, but the implementation of an idea. We all have ideas, but if you implement them brilliantly - that is, you pick up the phone, you get people together, you make things happen - then you can make it a success."
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.
Bonus Online Content
For a host of additional ideas from the Agritourism Coach on how to make your farmstand and farm market succeed, visit http://growingmagazine.com/blog-2369.aspx