Inviting opportunity

The definition of agritourism is almost as limitless as your imagination. Hosting farm weddings, fishing expeditions, beekeeping adventures, and yes, even goat yoga all fall under this giant umbrella. According to the USDA Economic Research Service and the Census of Agriculture, farm agritourism revenue more than tripled from 2002 to 2017. With seemingly constant market instability, more farmers are looking into this sector to add value to their operations and offer the public an invitation to experience life on the farm.

This year, when vacations and other celebrations have been put on hold, agritourism offers an outlet to get outside, put worries aside and make memories at a safe distance.

“This is probably the busiest year we’ve ever had,” said John White, who runs a U-pick farm with his wife, Linda, in Bates City, Mo.

“I guess if you can’t go to a bar, a U-pick is the next best thing,” Linda joked.

John and Linda moved 21 years ago to their current loca­tion just about a mile off of Interstate 70.

“Before that, it was just a bean field,” Linda said. “John planted a couple of strawberry patches for us and then just didn’t stop.”

John admits he may have gotten a little carried away. The couple originally purchased five acres of land and added another five when it became available. On those 10 acres, the couple grows almost every type of produce suitable for Missouri. Their season begins in April with asparagus. In mid-May, the strawberries begin to ripen, then the black­berries, and then blueberries.

“Blueberries and blackberries are basically at the same time for a while,” John said. “Then we have peaches and pears and apples and plums.”

When people think of U-pick farms, berries and apples often come to mind—green beans and onions typically don’t. But John and Linda’s Fruit and Berry Farm also offers a variety of garden vege­tables and flowers for picking. Pumpkins round out their season in October.

“We have a little something for everyone,” John said. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s definitely more work.”

When John started two strawberry patches all those years ago, he said U-pick options weren’t as prevalent.

“There were a few up north and around Kansas City that did apples or strawberries,” John said. “But there weren’t any here locally. I grew up on a dairy farm near Bogard, Mo., and we used to do the farmer’s markets with my dad, who also had orchards and vegetables. As we got older, taking produce to the market became too much. Just packing and unpacking everything is a tremendous amount of work. At the time, I’d also taken a job with an over-the-road shipping company and started working weekends.”

The couple were still six or seven years away from retirement. As John looked into the future, he wanted a way to augment their retirement income. The U-pick business has done exactly that. A few years ago, the couple put a new roof on the house and painted the exterior with the money saved from previous seasons.

“It’s always something,” John said. “For instance, the brakes went out on my truck yesterday. This gives me extra, so I don’t have to cut into our retirement funds. The money that we make here wouldn’t be enough to live off of, but it does give me a supplement, and that’s the real reason we did this.”

While 10 acres may not seem like a lot to any traditional farmer, per-acre margins on John and Linda’s U-pick are significantly higher than corn or soybeans might be.

“I’ve been away from traditional farming for so long that I’m not sure what an acre of soybeans or corn is worth anymore,” John said. “My best estimate is what we make per acre here is probably five times that, but you can’t do what we do on hundreds of acres. It’s all hand labor.”

Likewise, planting takes careful planning.

“I started planting trees the first year,” John said. “A peach tree takes two to three years to get established and fruit. Even then, it will only produce a couple of peaches in the beginning. An apple tree takes four or five years to produce fruit, and every year we lose trees due to weather and diseases.”

One year, the farm lost 100 peach trees to excessive rains. Such losses have the potential to be catastrophic.

“We constantly have to plant and replant,” John said. “Because if you don’t stay on top of it, you risk getting behind and may not have anything for four or five years.”

Planning is just one of the challenges that goes along with operating a U-pick farm. The sheer amount of labor is another. The strawberry patch has to be weeded year-round, not just when the plants are producing. Blackberry brambles must be sheared. Spraying must be carefully timed and communicated to ensure customer safety. And, often, at the end of the day, good fruit is left on the ground.

Nevertheless, sometimes unique challenges present unique solutions.

“We typically don’t have much waste,” John said. “People pretty well pick everything, but I’ll go through and gather the apples that fall to the ground or may have been culled because of a little spot. I’ll wash them up, and we’ll make sweet apple cider.”

In the corner of the garage, next to the produce table, sits an old juicer John inherited from his father.

“The juice is really good,” Linda emphasized. “We’ve had people go to their car, take a sip, drink the whole jar and come back for more. Plus, the kids love it. They love throwing the apples in the juicer.”

Just a short 30-minute drive from Kansas City, the small U-pick farm gets visitors from all over the world. John and Linda recollected the countries from memory—Turkey, China, Russia, India, Vietnam, Bosnia, the Philippines.

“It’s amazing how many people from different countries come out here,” John said. “A lot are just visiting or are now local to Kansas City, and they will bring their friends and come out to pick.”

Many people have told Linda and John that this year marks the first time they’ve ever visited a U-pick farm. Mallory Montgomery of Blue Springs, Mo., is one of those first-timers. During the pandemic, she’s been working from home part-time and visited the farm in late summer with her children, Ava, who will be 7 years old in October, and Daniel, 3.

“We were looking for things to do outside,” said Mallory, as she and the kids wandered the manicured grounds. “It keeps them connected to nature. Our days are much more open now, since I’m working less and we’re all at home. We’ve been mean­ing to do something like this, but my son was still pretty little last season. This year he’s much more independent.”

The three started in the blueberry patch. Ava dutifully tasted one blueberry and put the rest in her bucket. Daniel “tasted” every blueberry he picked.

“We’re going to have to add another pound to our tab,” Mal­lory said.

That’s part of it, John said, smiling as the kids brought their buckets to the cash register, set up in the garage. At this junc­ture in their lives, the couple plan on running the farm for the foreseeable future.

“We’re just going to keep doing this until we can’t anymore,” Linda said.

ROADSIDE RETAIL

About 30 minutes north, Rasa Orchards’ market just outside Lexington, Mo., also attracts people from far and wide. The family has operated a direct-to-retail option for customers for nearly 60 years, but the open-air storefront along Highway 24 has served as the face of the multi-generational operation since the late 1980s.

The larger story, however, is just a little further down the gravel drive, where the Rasa packing house sits obscured by apple trees. As the drive opens up, it is obvious the scale of the operation goes beyond this small roadside market.

“We run about 2,000 to 2,500 bushels of apples through here a day,” said Norman Rasa, who owns and operates the orchard with his brothers, Bob and Edgar. Their wives and many of their children and grandchildren are also involved.

Today’s three-brother partnership actually goes back two generations to their grandfather, August Rasa, Sr.

“My grandfather planted four acres of apple trees,” Norman said. “After that we just continued to buy land as it became available.”

Since that time, the orchards have steadily grown to encom­pass 170 acres of trees, including five acres of peaches. Much of that expansion can be attributed to Norman and his brothers, but each generation has made its own mark on the business.

“Robert Rasa, Sr., was a very knowledgeable grafter,” Ruby Rasa said, speaking of her husband, Edgar’s, father. “You had to be back then. He actually perfected a Jonathan strain. Stark Bros. Nursery was interested, and the rights to this Jonathan strain were sold to them. The name of the tree is Jon-A-Red, a late-season Jonathan.”

Spark Bros. is a well-known name in the tree business. Locat­ed in Louisiana, Mo., the 200-year-old nursery ships trees and other plants nationwide.

At the warehouse, packing season typically starts in August and runs for roughly three months. When the apples begin to ripen, they are hand-picked and placed in large plastic bins in the orchards. Those bins are transported to the warehouse, where they are lowered into the processing line for a wash, buff and wax before they are sorted by size and packaged by hand.

It’s fast-paced, hectic work. At times, the machine jams or goes too fast for new staff to keep up. Norman, positioned at the helm of the processing line, oversees its operation, closely monitoring a computer. Occasionally, he shuts it down to allow the seasonal workers to catch up.

“Normally, we have about 50-60 employees,” said Susan Rasa, Norman’s wife, who also helps run daily operations. “But we’ve had a shortage this year. Some of our employees that typically come back every year are older and didn’t want to risk possible COVID exposure, even though we have safety measures in place.”

Rasa Orchards sells to Walmart, which distributes the apples across its retail network.

“A lot of our apples go to stores here in Missouri but also to Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, just to name a few,” Norman said. “We actually have a freight advantage being locat­ed here because we can be in any big major city in about eight to 10 hours. The thing about the Missouri apples is they’re one of the first fresh apples on the market every year.”

This wholesale operation amounts to 95% of Rasa’s business, Norman said, while the retail market makes up the other 5%. Statistically, this checks out for a lot of farmers who decide to add an agritourism component. According to the USDA Eco­nomic Research Service, agritourism revenue is still relatively small when compared with total farm revenue, accounting for only 5.6% of farm-related income in 2017, the last year census data was recorded.

Ruby operates the market most days. She unequivocally con­siders their retail storefront to be agritourism. Many people stop as they’re driving through or find the farm on the internet and purposely make a trip. Like John and Linda’s, Rasa is a relatively short drive from Kansas City.

“We have regular customers that come from as far as Iowa,” Ruby said, as she rang out another person at the register in mid-August. It was nearing the end of peach season, and this time of year, Rasa’s customers can’t seem to get enough of the fleshy fruit, often inquiring which variety she recommends.

“The best peach is a ripe peach,” is Ruby’s consistent re­sponse, but she knows everyone has different preferences. She asks about use—if they’re making pies or jams, or if they like freestone or clingstone varieties better, explaining the difference if necessary.

“I have come down every week for the last five, and I take peaches home to people,” said Lisa Lohman of Kansas City, who has been an avid customer of the small retail market for many years. “We do this every year. We’ll freeze the peaches and use them throughout the year for everything—pies, cobblers, ice cream, smoothies.”

Lisa is only one example of the market’s loyal customer base, Ruby said.

“She comes in and buys for her neighbors,” Ruby said. “That’s what helps us more than anything else—customers like this.”

Jim and Sharon Thomas are next in line. Now retired teachers, they consider themselves regulars.

“We’re all the way from Lexington,” Jim joked, “but we’re here at least once a week.”

In the brief gap between customers, Ruby brings out more peaches from the refrigerator and straightens the shelves.

“I’ll tell you one last story,” Ruby said. “I came up here in ’68 from my home in Arkansas to pick apples, and I married my boss.” She referred to her husband, Edgar, now 84, who had driven by earlier on a tractor.

“We’ve been married 51 years,” she added.

When asked if he ever considered retiring, she laughed. “He’s a farmer to the core. He doesn’t know how to. They really don’t. It’s in their veins.”

A-MAIZE-ING ADVENTURES

In mid-September, Larry and Evelyn Hampton were just begin­ning to ramp up their season. The couple runs Hampton Corn Maze in Marshfield, Mo., on their former dairy farm.

Twelve years ago, after many years in the dairy business, Larry and Evelyn realized they had hit a dead end.

“We started milking in 1976,” Larry said. “And we made pretty good money milking until 1980. We bought this farm that year, and the roof caved in. You couldn’t generate enough ‘ducks’ to feed the ‘deducts.’”

In 1982, with two young children at home and the farm crisis in full swing, Evelyn went to work at a local factory and Larry kept milking. In ’92, the couple added greenhouses and a pumpkin patch to further supplement their dairy income.

But in 2006, when their pumpkin crop failed for the third year in a row, it was time to head in a different direction and rework the business again.

“We couldn’t open that year because we had nothing,” Evelyn said. “One day, I told Larry we were going to look at some corn mazes.”

The couple visited several mazes in the area, and in Verona, Mo., they found an experience worth duplicating. That maze wasn’t just a path through a field. It had a design and a pur­pose, Larry said.

“You learned something there,” Evelyn added. “We got lost for over an hour. We actually ended up teaming up with a family with kids to answer the trivia questions they had throughout the maze. We had so much fun, we decided that’s the kind of thing we wanted to do here.”

In 2007, the couple opened Hampton’s Corn Maze with the theme “Angels on Earth.” Most of their themes are family friend­ly or Biblical in nature.

The maze encompasses 8.1 acres of the Hamptons’ 158-acre farm. The experience starts with a half-mile hayride to the field. Fire rings are also available for reservation, and visitors are encouraged to bring flashlights if they are interested in com­pleting the maze after dark. There are 10 numbered stops in the maze—five in the first half, and five in the second half. At each stop, participants answer a trivia question. Incorrect answers lead you down the wrong path.

Larry and Evelyn work with The MAiZE, the largest maze consulting company in the world, based out of Utah. The com­pany partners with “agritainment farms” to develop the maze designs, provide business support and cut the mazes for more than 260 farms worldwide.

“They have three to four people who come here from Utah every year in the early summer after the corn has been planted,” Evelyn said. “They’ll have two colors of flags and graph paper with our maze pattern. They put the flags down and mark their place. The next guy comes along with a can of paint to mark the walking path. When that’s done, they have a backpack sprayer with herbicide in it, like the kind we would normally use to spray fencerows, but it sprays two rows at once. And they do not walk. They run.”

For this year’s corn maze, Larry planted DeKalb DKC70- 27RIB, a 120-day corn that has excellent late-season appearance and standability, which is important for the maze. He purchases the seed and fertilizer for the field from MFA Agri Services in Marshfield.

“We don’t pray for pretty ears of corn like a grain farmer,” Larry said. “We pray for pretty stalks. And we want it to stay green for as long as possible, which is why we plant it in June. I want good, tall corn that’s going to stand. When the combine comes in here, if I can get 100 bushels per acre with the paths cut out, it almost pays for corn seed and my fertilizer. Yield is an added bonus.”

The year after their first corn maze, Larry and Evelyn got out of the dairy business.

“When we started the maze, the writing was already on the wall,” Larry said. “We were still milking about 40 Holsteins at that time. I loved dairying, and it really bothered me for about two years after we quit. It’s how both of our kids learned to work.”

“We both cried as they loaded up the cattle,” Evelyn added. “But through this, we’ve learned that we are people persons. With the greenhouses, it’s really busy until Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, then it’s pretty quiet. When nobody’s here, I miss it. I love the people who come here. That’s what I thrive off of.”

The maze is open to the public every weekend through Oct. 31 this year. Groups and individuals can visit by appoint­ment on weekdays.

“If I have to start up the tractor to take two people to the corn maze, I’ll take them,” Larry said. “I probably don’t make any money doing that, but I made two people happy.”

Their customers have been good to them, Evelyn said. She keeps a scrapbook full of the previous years’ flyers, cards, thank you notes and children’s drawings the couple has received over the years.

“We may not have what a lot of people have,” Larry said. “But the life we have is worth billions.”

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