By Matt Reese
Ohio’s agritourism operations straddle the line between urban and rural, filling an important niche for agriculture by entertaining, educating and connecting consumers with farms.
“It gives people an opportunity to drive out of the driveway and turn left instead of right and see what else is in their community. They like to go out and be in the open space. I think that’s the biggest thing. It just gives them a chance to get out and see a new way of life,” said Rob Leeds, with Ohio State University Extension in Delaware County and owner of Leeds Farm in Ostrander. “The idea is you bring people out with activities and a little bit of ambiance, then you talk to them about livestock and how we treat the animals or hay bales versus straw bales and get them out there doing the fun activities that we did growing up on the farm. Those kinds of things may not seem like an educational opportunity but it gives you a chance to interact with a lot of people that you would never otherwise see or talk to and it’s good for them to learn about what’s outside of their community.”
Like many farms around quickly developing parts of the state, Leeds Farms started trying to cater to increasing numbers of urban customers near the family farm back in 1994 with a pallet of pumpkins and an honor box. Since then, the farm has grown into a wedding venue and very popular autumn destination with a wide array of farm activities and attractions (including a zip line and a combine slide) for visitors.
“The first thing we had was a little straw maze and then we did hayrides and some different things like that and it just grew naturally. A lot of what we do is driven by things that we did on the farm that we found enjoyable. We have a corn box kids can play in, we have wildlife running around and we also have some animatronic animals out there too. When you go by a skunk, it will try to spray you and we’ve got a zip-lining squirrel that’ll go over top of you,” Leeds said. “The thing that I really enjoy that we have on the farm is our combine slide. Several years ago, I went to a dealer and said, ‘I need a combine.’ It came right out of the field. We took the straw walkers out and the screens and we put a slide down through the grain tank. It has a 30-foot head, which is small for a farm today, but for most of our clientele that looks like a pretty big machine. They can climb up in it and sit in the seat and then slide out. Once again, with that we’re combining the entertainment and the education part.”
While the activities for agritourism operations need to be fun, it is also very important that they are safe. Back in 2016, Ohio’s legislature enacted an agritourism law in part to protect agritourism operators from legal liability for injuries that are due to the inherent risks of engaging in activities on a farm. To be covered, an agritourism operation is required to post a sign in a specific format with specific wording to inform all visitors of the inherent risks. Farm owners can contact OSU Extension South Centers Direct Marketing Program or the county Farm Bureau for information about getting an agritourism sign that meets the requirements of the law.
“We’re not King’s Island. We’re not paving every acre and trying to change the whole character of the farm. On a farm, you have some inherent risks — potholes in your parking lot, breaks between straw bales, holes you could step in. This limited liability plan really helped alleviate some of those issues. Now if you’re negligent, you’re still liable but if it’s something that’s inherent to the activity or to the operation, then people know about the risks by posting these signs. That’s been a big help to a lot of us. I see the signs around quite a bit and it’s been very effective,” Leeds said. “But just because you’re limited liability, doesn’t mean you don’t want to continue to apply excellent customer service and go above and beyond what people expect. The idea is to make sure that you’re on top of these things and that people are having a good time. We don’t want anybody to get hurt. The liability issues are huge. As farmers, we have to look at our operations from a different lens. Is this safe? Is this something that the consumers are going to look at it in a positive light?”
Along these lines, it is also important for agritourism operations to work closely with their insurance agent and attorney.
“I consider insurance agents and attorneys part of my team. We want to make sure they know exactly what we’re doing. We’re not going to do it and ask for forgiveness — we don’t want to operate like that,” Leeds said. “I make sure that my insurance agent and my attorney come out each and every year before we open and we explain this is what we’re doing. Are you comfortable with everything? I’ve actually fired insurance agents because they wouldn’t come out years ago. Your team can also include your fire local fire and sheriff and EMS so they can make sure they can get on the farm.”
Along with providing a safe experience, more agritourism operations are finding ways to control crowds and offer visitors a better experience. This is being done through reservation systems or online ticket sales.
“With COVID we were asked to limit numbers and what we found was that a lot of people were having a better experience. And it benefitted not only just your customers, but also your staff wasn’t as stressed when you knew how many people were coming. You could plan for it and you could staff for it,” Leeds said. “The idea of offering a quality product versus just trying to get as many people as you could has really taken off.”
The quality experience also depends on a well-trained staff who enjoy what they do.
“We employ a lot of high school and college kids and a lot of times it’s their first job, so it’s an opportunity for us to help develop kids to become more productive once they get out into their real jobs. I think people in agritourism really relish that idea of being able to help kids mature and become productive citizens,” Leeds said. “We have kids from more suburban schools and we have kids from rural schools and they don’t interact a lot otherwise, but every weekend now they’re out working together on an agritourism operation getting to know each other. The education of those staff and those kids, to me, is just as rewarding as having a successful operation.”
Another unique role of agritourism is the opportunity for a future on the farm in areas less conducive to traditional production agriculture.
“From an agritourism standpoint, it can be an opportunity for farms that are closer to the city, where there’s not a lot of land to rent. If you want to bring back a son or a daughter, this is an opportunity to have them develop part of the farm by doing something different. Agritourism works really well at bringing the urban audience and the rural audience together to educate — whether it is school groups or groups of adults,” Leeds said. “I think it really benefits both sides as we work together. There are a lot of pluses to rural agritourism and opening your farm up to visitors, even though it’s kind of scary sometimes. Ohio is so ripe for these agritourism operations because we do have a thriving agricultural community and we have thriving metropolitan areas in just about every part of the state.”