Missouri grower creates a destination as an educational tool
Weston Red Barn Farm in northwest Missouri is definitely a growing operation, in more ways than one. It is also much more. Steve Frey dreamt and planned for this operation for 10 years before he took the plunge. He was traveling the world in his purchasing position with Saudi Arabian Airlines, but harkened back to the memories of his childhood visits to an uncle’s farm in Missouri. He wanted to relive that experience and recreate it for others. He and his wife, Cindy, purchased a 200-acre farm about 25 miles north of Kansas City in 1989.
Frey says, “The property was in terrible shape. It was overrun with junk and weeds and the soil had been overworked.” They started the cleanup process, and Weston Red Barn Farm was born in 1990. He says, “It looked as though when anything stopped running or a tire or some other part was removed, it was left on the spot. The weeds would then grow up around the junk.” Steve restored the buildings that he could and built new ones, mostly with old materials salvaged from others in the area.
Besides the fields, orchards, buildings and barnyard, there is a fair amount of what Steve calls “farm-tiques” and “agri-junk” strategically placed around the farm. These add to the ambience, authenticity and education.
The goal was to create an experience for visitors in an educational and fun way that would pay for itself and also turn a nice profit. While growing and selling fruits and vegetables is a big part of the operation, there is much more. There is a country store and farmers’ market. Farm crops and animals are a part of the mix. It is an agritourism attraction. It is a site for weddings, receptions, tours, team building exercises, company picnics, bonfire/hayride evenings and educational sessions. The result is a turn-of-the-century working farm that draws thousands of visitors annually.
Weston Red Barn Farm’s first plantings included apple trees. There are currently 8 acres of apple orchard. Varieties grown include: Jonathan, Red and Yellow Delicious, Fuji, Gala and Ozark Gold. The Freys like the different maturity dates spreading the season. Frey states, “Since we are a you-pick operation, our trees are all semidwarf so that people can more easily reach them.” When asked about spraying, Frey says, “We follow the low-input sustainable agriculture system and watch the orchard carefully. We only apply an insecticide or fungicide as that observation dictates.”
Fifteen to 20 acres of pumpkins are planted every year. These are side-dressed with a handful of 13-13-13 fertilizer that is applied by hand at each plant. The pumpkins are a major attraction for fall events. Hayrack rides take customers out to pick their own and bring them back up to the store.
They have 2 acres of blackberries, 1 acre of strawberries and 120 peach trees. The strawberries and blackberries are mulched with the compost from the large pile created by the farm animals that include cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, draft horses, a burro, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. They lost a lot of the blackberries that hadn’t yet been mulched during the winter of 2009. Frey says, “We probably would not have had such a loss if they had all gotten mulched.” They use predator flies and fly traps to keep down the fly population.
A .5-acre plot is being established for blueberries. The plan was to set out 600 plants this year, but the rains changed that. They now plan to set the first ones out next year and to double the blueberry patch in the future. This is the only part of the farm currently being prepared for irrigation. Steve is installing a solar pump to move the water from their pond to the patch. Future plans call for wind turbines and more solar power. This will add to their planned sustainability and the educational component.
Frey says, “The public wants to know where their food is coming from and how it is produced. They want to get out and learn.” Weston Red Barn Farm is ideally situated near a major metropolitan area to take advantage of that interest.
The business is also growing in sales. They had a 5 percent increase in 2009 over 2008. Through October 2010, each month has shown a 10 percent increase over the previous years.
Over 18,000 school kids took part in tours last year. The tours are conducted in spring and fall. Spring tours include the barnyard, where participants meet and learn about the animals, along with a hayride through the orchard to explore apple production, and a visit to the “garden” station to learn how seeds are planted. The students also receive a plant in a container to take back to the classroom for further education. The tours last about 90 minutes, and the fee is $5 per person. For an extra dollar a stop at the observation beehive can be added. Here students learn the important relationship between the bees and the plants and how honey is made. They also get a honey stick.
Fall tours include the barnyard animals, playing in a hay pile, a prairie trail maze and trips to the pumpkin patch and orchard. The basic time and cost remain the same as spring tours, with the various add-ons determining the final cost. Tours can be conducted 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. Anyone wanting to tour during those hours must be part of a group and pay the fee. There is no charge for the teachers or other adult supervisors. After 2 p.m. and on weekends, self-guided tours of the barnyard are available at no charge. They don’t have as heavy an educational component, but certain stops can be added for individual fees depending on the season.
Another draw for the Freys is their country store and farm market. The farmers’ market not only sells produce grown on the farm, but many other area growers display their goods throughout the week. This gives the public more to choose from on their stop and helps the growers spread their sales throughout the week instead of just concentrating on the weekend markets. Some of the products are purchased by the Freys for resale, and others are placed on consignment.
The country store includes the farmers’ market plus old-fashioned candies, jellies and preserves, relishes and salsas, dips, candles, lotions, teas, coffees, linens, honey, bowls, gifts, John Deere toys and kitchen gizmos. A walk-in cooler keeps produce fresh and houses the apple cider and other drinks. A kids’ room includes vintage children’s furniture, farm-related toys, books, puzzles and baby gifts.
Additional attractions in the fall include a corn maze, pony rides, horse-drawn hayrides, and tractor-drawn hayrides to the pumpkin patch. Another popular draw is “Fun Farm Food” served at their on-site restaurant, The Dinner Bell.
The store is open Memorial Day weekend through Veterans Day. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Sundays noon to 5 p.m. until Labor Day. Then they are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week until they close for the year on November 11. They will open by appointment for special occasions or rentals.
There are two full-time employees beside Steve and Cindy. Doug Kelly shares farming and growing responsibilities. Jane Lemm is the office manager. Over 60 part-timers assist throughout the year. Many are retired military or sons and daughters of retired military personnel. Frey says, “Our proximity to military bases makes this a natural. We also give discounts on product purchases by military personnel and they have free maze admission.” He adds, “We pay better than the fast foods, but our employees are going to have to work for it. We tell them they can do something, learn something and make more money, all at the same time.” A number of younger siblings have come on board after the others have gone off to college.
While Frey states, “We are better marketers than we are growers,” it is evident that growing is the key to quality produce, and Weston Red Barn Farm has mastered both.
The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.