Contrary to other travel sectors, agricultural tourism didn’t see the difficulties some industries experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The popularity of agritourism has been growing steadily,” says Xinyi Qian, director and state specialist of the Tourism Center at University of Minnesota. “The COVID-19 pandemic, which made clear the importance and benefits of local foods and being in nature, may not be all negative to agritourism. Its popularity has continued to grow, so far, post-pandemic.”

Agritourism is one of the fastest-growing industries in the country and has become the lifeblood of many rural local economies. Nationally, according to the latest numbers by the U.S. Census of Agriculture, it is estimated that between 2002 and 2017, income from agritourism businesses increased from $202 million to $949 million. “This steady increase is part of a large global trend,” explains Sheila Everhart, executive director of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association (WATA), noting that agritourism remains popular today. She sees it up close and personal in the Badger State. Wisconsin, a state rich in agriculture, offers much in the way of farm education and tourism.

“Wisconsin’s deep agricultural foundation in combination with its vibrant tourism industry fuel a powerful economic engine,” she says. “Agriculture contributes more than $104.8 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy. The state is home to 64,100 farms on 14.2 million acres, with an average farm size of 222 acres. Annually, 435,700 jobs, or 11.8% of state employment, are involved in agriculture.”

Sylvia Burgos Toftness, president of WATA, says agricultural tourism continues to grow in significance for several reasons: “The public is looking for a reconnection with the people who grow their food and fiber; the public increasingly seeks outdoor experiences for an afternoon, weekend, or week; and farmers are eager to welcome visitors to their farms,” she says. “There are also the economic benefits: Small family farms can realize a much-needed revenue stream by offering on-farm recreation, food, and entertainment. The economic boost is also usually felt by the nearby town as visitors extend their time and dollars during their trip. Local hotels/motels, restaurants, and other downtown businesses often report an uptick in business when individuals or groups attend on-farm events.”

However, echoing what Qian said about agritourism being nuanced by available activities, Toftness says finding places to go is at times perplexing. “One of the challenges for the general public is finding a farm they can visit,” she explains, noting WATA is proactive in its efforts to meet the challenge. “WATA has responded to this by continually updating a website especially designed to help people find farms providing the activities and foods they’d like. The website makes it easy to find farms by location or type of activities provided,” Toftness continues. “Interestingly, an additional challenge is sometimes helping elected officials understand that by encouraging agricultural tourism, they are supporting an economic engine with positive impact on local economies—especially rural communities.”

Everhart says any number of agricultural tourism opportunities are being planned in Wisconsin this year, including Weekend Ag-Venture Tours in March 22-24, Sept. 27-29, and Nov. 15-17.

Making herbal remedies at Herbal Safari, Bull Brook Keep, Clear Lake, Wisconsin;
Credit: Sylvia Burgos Toftness

Toftness, who owns a ranch called Bull Brook Keep, is transitioning her property into an herbal farm. Named Herbal Safari, the farm welcomes visitors and offers tours of the property and its many medicinal plants. “My husband and I are transitioning from a cattle operation to a medicinal permaculture focus,” she explains. “This means I welcome visitors to guided herb walks—called herbal safaris—that include perennial plants, shrubs, and trees common to the Upper Midwest. The goal of an herbal safari is to help these ‘explorers’ see the many helpful plants that also grow in their own backyards.”

She says good things are in store for the industry, but also for her farm, and she looks forward to welcoming new and returning visitors. “In 2024, I’ll schedule four to five Safaris throughout the growing season because what’s in leaf, bloom, and fruit changes as we move from spring to summer to fall,” she says. “I also expect to hold both basic and more advanced Herbal Remedy Making classes.”

Agritourism in Michigan and Minnesota

In Northwest Michigan, visit Cotton Creek Farms, an alpaca farm located in Thompsonville that is both educational and entertaining. With a motto of “Our Farm is Where the Magic Happens,” it is a place that is enchanting for young and old alike. Cotton Creek is a working farm that offers alpaca breeding, sales, boarding, and mentoring. It also has an on-site farm store and offers guided alpaca tours. The animals at this farm are a mix of 4-H, hobby, pet, and show-quality alpacas; they even have names. Meet Adel, Amara, Daisy, Diva, Dolly, Faith, and Heartthrob, among many others.

A couple of other stops on your agricultural tourism trip to Michigan are Weiss Centennial Farm, Overhiser Orchards, and Uncle John’s Cider Mill. Providing fresh fruit since 1863, Overhiser Orchards in South Haven is a u-pick orchard that also has animals on-site. Among the tasty edibles to pick here are apricots, peaches, pears, and sweet and tart cherries. Weiss Centennial Farm, established in 1853 in Frankenmuth, is a great place to visit for farm tours and classes. And Uncle John’s Cider Mill, near St. Johns, offers seasonal experiences at the site. Besides the cider mill, there also is a tap room, pie barn, and gift shop.

Back in Minnesota, Qian says there are plenty of agricultural tourism options in her state, but the offerings depend “on a group’s interest, size, location, and the amount of time the group has.” Some of the possibilities include orchards such as Apple Jack Orchard in Delano, Crow River Winery in Hutchinson, and Keepsake Cidery in Dundas. As autumn approaches, there are plenty of corn mazes, pumpkin patches, and u-pick farms to visit.

Located near Eden Valley, Minnesota, is A maze’n Farmyard that welcomes all types of groups, including those wishing to celebrate special events. Activities here are plentiful, including a 20,000-square-foot maze, different games to choose from, a 150-foot slide, petting and feeding barn, goldfish and duck pond, pony rides, a lifesize birdhouse in which to feed the parakeets, and a miniature golf course.

Qian, who is excited about the future of agritourism not only in her state but also across the country, says she sees momentum to help the industry even at the congressional level—“and I believe it will continue to grow.” As it does, even more opportunities will be available.

By Andrew Weeks

Main Image: Wild blue vervain at Bull Brook Keep, Clear Lake, Wisconsin; Credit: Sylvia Burgos Toftness