On a warm, October Saturday in Champaign, thirty-five people gather at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery to enjoy the last farm-to-table dinner of the season. During the summer months, Prairie Fruits Farm hosts dinners at their farm using local produce from their farm and surrounding farms. Prairie Fruits Farm is just one of many agritourism destinations in the Midwest region. Agritourism is a concept that combines the elements of agriculture and tourism to open new profit markets for farm products and services while offering travel and educational experiences to society. Prairie Fruits Farm serves as a working farm, and its mission is to connect people to local farm practices and food production. Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband are the owners of Prairie Fruits Farm; their operation was one of the first farm-to-table organizations in the Midwest. Both Cooperband and Jarrell are educators, and they believe agritourism is an excellent way to teach the public about agriculture and where their food comes from.
“We’re working on developing systems that connect the consumer directly to the farmer and make it clear that that farmer is open and transparent and accountable,” Jarrell said.
The Agritourism industry is currently on the rise. According to the National Agricultural Statistical Services, income from agritourism increased from 566 million dollars in 2007 to 704 million dollars in 2012. In Illinois alone, total revenue from agritourism increased from $3,668,000 in 2002 to $11,776,000 in 2007.
“From a business perspective, I think the people are traveling because they want to see what is happening within their industry to become more educated, more knowledgeable,” Leah Longueville, the Director of Sales at the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. “From a leisure standpoint, there is this whole trend of farm-to-table and people wanting to know where their food comes from. They not only want to see it but they want to experience it.”
At the Prairie Fruits Farm dinner, guests finish up the hors d’oeuvre hour at 6 pm and prepare to go on a tour of the farm with Jarrell. Jarrell believes one of the most important roles of agritourism operations is to give access to the entire farm so people can see how and where their food is produced.
(Photo: Wes Jarrell, owner of Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, gives guests a tour of the farm.)
“We really think that every farm should be transparent,” Jarrell said. “The customer deserves that – to be able to actually come, maybe not every day, maybe not every hour, but come out and see how that farmer or how that farm family produces the food they grow.”
According to Longueville, agritourism is a growing part of the Midwest economy and culture. Longueville cites the central location and the growth of the local food movement as reasons why agritourism is a rapidly developing industry.
“We have a number of farms that will host farm dinners or have people out for tours or do breakfasts or brunch,” Longueville said. “That gives the people the opportunity to really be out there and see what happens and see where their food comes from.”
After the guests tour Prairie Fruits Farm, it is time for the first course. Visitors flow into the rustic barn and take seats at one of the three long, family-style tables. The food consists of in-season crops grown directly on the farm and a local selection of meats. Attending one of these farm-to-table dinners costs 100 dollars per person, but guests say it is well worth the money.
“I think it broadens your awareness of where our food comes from,” Sherry Harlan, a dinner guest at the Farm, said. “Thinking about keeping it sustainable and supporting local agriculture and local farms is important to them and important to us – and I love the fact that it’s coming back.”
Other popular agritourism operations in the Illinois region include Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm in Northern Illinois, Apple Blossom Farm in Central Illinois, and Owl Creek Vineyard in Southern Illinois. Farmers are continuing to accommodate tour requests not only because of the economic opportunities for farmers in agritourism, but also because there is a growing interest within society to learn more about food production and agricultural practices.
“People are becoming more and more aware of that and more conscious because there’s a market for it and there’s also a financial opportunity there,” Longueville said.
According to the 2009 report from the USDA, “Measuring the Economic Impact of Agritourism on Farms,” total income from agritourism and recreational services more than doubled from 2002-2007, but 50% or more of farms have less than $5,000 of agritourism income. According to the 2000 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, nearly two-thirWWds of all agritourism customers live in the Midwest or South. While there has been little research recently about agritourism, the increase in demand, according to Longueville, could be due to the popularity of the local food movement.
While the concept of agritourism dates back to the late 1800s, the types of agritourism operations we see today are quite new to people, according to Longueville, and the growth of this tourism industry has not reached its peak by any means.
“Never had I ever sat on a farm and ate dinner with the ingredients that were sourced right there where I was standing,” Longueville said. “I think that’s a really unique experience that people want these days they want to know more about that type of industry.”