Wes Jarrell takes the class on a tour of Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery.
It was the end of three days of intensive training and the room was quiet as our participants pored through the multi-page evaluations I had just handed them. After a minute, one of them, a farmer and beekeeper from Wisconsin, looked up at me and said, “Asking about the food is sort of a powderpuff question, don’t ya think?” I looked at him confused for a moment and he continued, “I mean, obviously it was amazing! What else is there to say?”
And so it was. Between inspiring tours of local agritourism operations, incredible food prepared by chef Alisa Demarco and her crew at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, and speakers who went in-depth on everything from how to price an on-farm meal to how to comply with zoning ordinance to how to entice the public with 140 characters or less, the participants in our Agritourism Training Intensive that ran last week from June 23-25 were effusive about their experience. “This workshop exceeded my expectations” said one participant, and another said to me at the end “this was a bargain, really.” Someone next to him amended, “it was a good value.” “Right,” he replied, chuckling. “A good value. That sounds better.”
The incredible dinner prepared by Alisa Demarco (standing at the end of the table) and her kitchen staff.
I was immensely pleased as well and am so thankful for everyone who helped us put this training together. Despite being the primary organizer of the training, I am only an expert on agritourism so far as research and a few seasons working on those kinds of farms will take me. I therefore relied on the expertise of many individuals and institutions to make this happen, and was fortunate to have so many at my disposal. I am also new to this region and therefore new to this network of people. That meant that I had to trust the people around me that the folks they were recommending I invite to speak and lead tours would deliver. And boy did they ever.
On the first day, Terri Reifsteck and Angela Ingerson of Visit Champaign County discussed the evolving nature of agritourism in Illinois and the need for putting more small farms on the map, Rachel Armstrong of Farm Commons adeptly guided participants through a dizzying amount of information on risk, liability, zoning code, and regulation over the course three hours of discussion and presentation, and our hosts Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband introduced their farm, their goats, and how to make a dairy both functional and available to the public. The icing on top was the kitchen crew, which prepared meals for us throughout the day, culminating in a knock-your-socks-off three-course meal, which we supplemented with beer and wine donated by Destihl Brewery and Sleepy Creek Vineyards.
Rachel Armstrong guides the class to better risk and liability mitigation.
On the second day, we hopped on a big yellow school bus, along with a few extra folks who had signed up only to take the tour, and we took off for Arthur, Illinois. There we met up with Mac Condill at his family’s farm, The Great Pumpkin Patch, who wowed all of us with an extensive tour of their farm, bakery, and grounds (with a mutual background in horticulture, I could’ve spent all day just observing Mac’s botanical collection), and treated us to their delicious pumpkin cookies in one of the two old schoolhouses they have relocated to their property. He also convened a panel of his extended family who all work together to run the place and were together an overflowing fount of knowledge for our participants.
Mac Condill talks about what agritourism means to him and his family and what it takes to run an operation like The Great Pumpkin Patch.
After a picnic lunch there (again prepared and boxed up for us by Alisa’s able crew), we journeyed to Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in Fithian to learn how they educate the public on their cheesemaking process from milking to curing. The large observation window into the creamery plus an overhead camera that fed into a TV on our side of the glass really made us feel like a part of the action. Our final stop was just down the road at Sleepy Creek Vineyards in Oakwood, where owners Dawn and Joe Taylor and their “Director of Fermentation” Tony Jacobson walked us through the winemaking process, how to make a farm like theirs a destination, and regaled us with tales of the foundation of the winery. Their conundrum of first planting their grape vines and then learning they were in a dry township was particularly entertaining. At the end of all this, we were in a time crunch but Dawn effortlessly guided us through a tasting that reduced the time between tastes without eliminating a single varietal, making for a very, let’s say, relaxed trip back to Prairie Fruits. A few of us went to dinner at Big Grove Tavern in downtown Champaign afterwards to enjoy their excellent local foods menu and even meet the chef, Jessica Gorin, who was kind enough to come out and say hi and chat awhile about her efforts to source locally. (It was Tuesday, so I was lucky enough to try their chicken and waffles special. Incredible.)
Tony Jacobson discusses the oak barrels, named Sheryl, Darrel, Sylvie, and Francois, the top two in which he ages their Bullheaded dry red wine, while the bottom barrels are dedicated to new projects.
On the last day, our participants were understandably feeling tired but there was more great stuff in store. Wes and Leslie went into more detail about the lessons they’ve learned in ten years of running Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, and Alisa dished about the start-up and operation of her kitchen. This included a tour of the kitchen, as well as pricing out the meals that we had been consuming to give the participants a realistic impression of how much really goes into providing on-farm meals. The rest of the day was devoted to marketing, particularly in terms of branding and social media. Katie Bishop of Prairierth Farm brought her years of success and speaking on social media to give us an overview of what works and what Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can do for a farm, especially one engaged in agritourism. Then Mariah Anderson of Mariah’s Mums and More and Sarah Hess of Prairie Fruits walked us through their own marketing and branding efforts, which lead to great conversations about how to manage a social media presence, using graphic design to create great brands, and The Land Connection’s social media starter kits.
Katie Bishop talks through the do’s and don’t’s of Facebook interaction for farm businesses.
When you spend three whole days with a group of people, you can’t help but get a little attached. My goal for this training was to have the participants leave feeling inspired and prepared to implement or expand their agritourism operations back home. Now that I have met these folks who were willing to spend three days away from their lives and businesses with us, and now that I know they are glad they did so, I cannot wait for the next step. One participant, who co-operates a very public, very busy apple orchard in Michigan, noted that the most important thing he learned was that agritourism was about creating an experience around one’s product, to engage people in the life of the farm. So what’s the next step that I am so eager for? I cannot wait to see the experiences those farmers go out and create for their customers. We educate and empower farmers; that’s our role at The Land Connection. With training on agritourism, we enable farmers to educate others, members of the public, people who may have never considered the origins of their food, and share flavor, joy, and the experience of the farming life. And so the good word on good food spreads, and so the learning multiplies.
The class meets the goats at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery.
PS: We already have more three-day trainings like this in the works. Stay tuned for forthcoming information on a training on alternative grains in the first week of November!