Columnist Claire Morenon: Some local farms welcome visitors

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 24, 2017, by Claire Morenon

For many of us, fall is the season for annual traditions that bring people out to the farm: apple and pumpkin picking, corn mazes, hay rides, and farm festivals.

It’s an easy pitch — spend a crisp fall day enjoying the season outdoors, with delicious farm-fresh food as your reward? Yes, please!

For much of our nation’s history, the vast majority of the population lived and worked on farms, but today, less than 2 percent of the population works in agriculture. In recent decades, we’ve seen a growing interest in reconnecting with the seasons and our shared agricultural heritage, as more people seek out local food and prioritize supporting local farmers. Spending leisure time on a farm strengthens that connection, too, and many more now offer on-farm activities.

Between the 2007 and the 2012 Agricultural Census, the number of farms engaged in “agritourism” grew from 154 to 287 statewide, and farm income from those activities grew from $5.3 million to over $12 million. The range of activities has increased. In addition to pick-your-own apples and pumpkins, farms are offering corn mazes, food festivals focused on crops from lavender to garlic, art installations, and theater events.

The Fall Festival at Just Roots in Greenfield

For local farmers, there are clear benefits to welcoming the public onto the farm: it’s a rapidly growing segment of our agricultural economy that can provide a much-needed income stream. Bringing hungry customers to the farm can benefit on-farm sales of other products significantly. And, of course, many local farmers enjoy having their farm function as a gathering space, providing the first exposure to farms for city visitors, and welcoming families over generations.

Still, as with any new enterprise, farmers have to carefully consider the costs and the risks. To accommodate guests, farms have to carry additional insurance, expand their facilities to allow for bathroom breaks and other needs, and hire additional staff to run the hay rides or cover ticket sales and concessions.

Land that’s used for agritourism activities, whether that’s a corn maze or just additional parking to allow for visitors, usually isn’t used for other crops. Corn mazes, for example, grow all summer long and the land compacts under all those visitors’ feet. And it’s often not worth the crew’s time to follow the public into picked over pick-your-own fields and orchards for additional harvest.

Farming is an inherently weather-dependent venture, and that is doubly true for agritourism – a series of cold or rainy weekends will seriously undermine the income realized by a pick-your-own operation, and one bad day can undercut a farm festival entirely.

And, of course, there are lifestyle considerations. Farmers are still working long hours pulling in fall harvests, and tossing a haunted hay ride into the mix isn’t manageable, or desirable, for all farms.

Happily, there are dozens of local farms that have weighed all these considerations and decided to welcome us onto their land. It’s important to remember that these are working farms, which means that there can be dangerous equipment in use, fields that appear empty but are actually freshly planted, livestock that can spook, electric fences, and sometimes pesticides or herbicides in use.

When visiting a farm, it’s important to respect their posted boundaries and ask permission before feeding or interacting with animals in order to stay safe. Remember that not all farms, even those with farm stands, are equipped to handle visitors throughout their whole farmland, so make sure you know the areas open to the public before exploring.

Now that you’re armed with all this behind-the-corn-maze knowledge, be sure to get out there and enjoy all that local farms have to offer this fall. Spend an afternoon picking pumpkins or wandering in a maze and create memories that will carry you through the winter.

Don’t already have a favorite spot to visit? Follow CISA on Facebook and Instagram for events and crop updates.

Claire Morenon is the communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.