Final Report for FNC04-528
To Enhance farm profits by incorporating an agri-tourism component into the farming operation, the project will create a three mile bike trail through the organic fields, woodlands and pastures of the farm. Customers will also be allowed to pick their own vegetables to be prepared for an on-site meal.
Our farm is 114 acres consisting of 15 acres established woods, pasture for 80 head of sheep (dorset/merino mix) and hay fields. About 7 acres are developed for vegetable crop rotation. The property has 2 year round springs, an old pond, and a small creek, which run through part of the property. The balance of the acreage is wetlands or partially wooded rolling to steep hills. There are three greenhouses for off-season leafy greens production and other vegetables depending on the season.
We also keep about 70 laying hens and raise 100-200 broilers and a few turkeys on pasture in the summer. The entire property has been certified organic for 12 years. Most of our income comes from the vegetable production, of which a third is sold to up scale restaurants and two thirds sold at farmers markets.
We have always tried to adhere to sustainable practices to the greatest degree. I am always looking for ways to diversify in to other crops- many long-term crops such as fruits and trees as well as asparagus and seed saving.
Often, on a small organic farm, it is difficult to increase farm income by utilizing unused land without the addition of expensive equipment or large numbers of hired help. Also the need for diversification and buffers to provide a balance environment and to prevent pest and disease problem can be difficult to justify from an economical point of view. This project is designed to enhance farm profits by allowing more of the farm to be used for income purposes while maintaining and increasing bio-diversity. The grant would help non-farmers experience all aspects of a working organic farm, from production to harvesting and eating, in a recreational atmosphere. The farm could generate additional income from existing farmed acreage and land which is not farmable or is wished to return to a more natural state or diversified types of production.
The grant money would be used to capitalize on the growing trend of agri-tourism or agri-entertainment. The idea is to create an approximately 3 mile trail through the 114 acre farm. This would consist of 2 or 3 small bridges brush clearing, fence crossing, gravel additions for erodent areas etc.
A map would be provided to guests as well as signs along the way that would highlight the various areas of the farm. Visitors would walk by a spring, where valuable wild watercress is harvested early in the year, up a steep hill covered with young cherry trees on to one of the hay fields. They would travel past vegetable plots, through woods, past wild blackberries, on to the pasture, to see sheep and chickens, and finally swing by the two passive solar greenhouses.
The guests would then participate in gathering vegetables for their meal that would be prepared on farm. A limited number of people would be allowed to sign up at any one time to prevent overcrowding and allow for a more intimate experience. Groups would be in the 10 to 20 range. Each session would last 2 to 4 hours and be open mainly on the weekend. The fee charged would try to cover food costs, food preparation and trail maintenance as well as make a good profit.
Some of the grant resources would be used for promotion and educational material as well as material used in the outreach segment.
The trail was originally thought to be made as a bike trail and I went to a couple bike trails in the area one that is in the Mohican state park. The path I took around the farm was somewhat steep I though, but compared to the other trails it was within reason without being bored. Most of the trail was cleared in March and April when it was easy to work without too much under brush and plan for keeping the trail cleared throughout the year.
Both Eric Helt (of the KNOX COUNTY CITIZENS FOR SMART GROWTH) and Jason Larson (formerly with the Brown Family Environmental Center at Kenyon College) were very enthusiastic about the trail and provided help with the planning and volunteer labor.
We learned form the health department that Ohio laws allows meals to be served from ones home if the number of meals is less than 115 meals per week and the fact that the premises is a non licensed facility. This was great because we were planning on only having at most 10 to 20 guests or two days a week, such as Saturday and/or Sunday.
Insurance for the trail was much less straightforward. We were told that for a bike trail the rates for a trail would be in the thousands and for a hiking trail the rate could be as high as $2500 or even possibly more because it really did not fall into one of their categories. Although one insurance company told us that if we were serving meals like a restaurant the trail could be just and extension of this and could all fall under a small restaurant policy which could be in the low hundreds. This was all very confusing and was something we would have to consider in the pricing of the event.
After I had some brochures of the trail finished I showed them to a few of the chefs that I sell to in Columbus. One of the chef/owners at a national recognized vegan restaurant called Dragonfly was quite interested in the on farm diner theme. He has just finished refurbishing behind his restaurant in to a garden area which he grows some of his food for the restaurant and has a table set up for special diners in the garden. He is quite interested in my venture – kind of the flip side of his urban gardening eating experience – and suggested that he could offer wine tasting during the on farm meals. I had found on the internet a few companies that offer on farm meals complete with wine from local wineries, and cheeses from local dairy farms. This started me thinking along this path of other products like this because I have a organic dairy farm friend who is only a few miles away and I sell at a market in Columbus next to a person who makes high quality apple wines.
This past year I have put a great deal of thought into what time of year would be the best time to invite quest to the farm what day and where to have the meal set up. It would seem that by late June through September we would have enough variety to provide quite an extensive meal. We have also been experimenting with making tofu from soybeans which is actually quite easy and would make a wonderful food to base a vegetarian meal around.
We were thinking of having the dinners outside and we would need a shelter. And if we had groups of 10 or more at one time we would need additional bathroom facilities since we have only one bathroom and it is located on the second floor of our house. We looked in to rental of tents and “nice” toilet facilities and this would cost around $450 to $650 per event depending on the length of rental – one week or one month.
Currently my schedule is to make deliveries on Wednesday to Columbus etc., go to a farmers market on Friday, and then got to a second market in Columbus on Saturday. This would leave mainly Sunday for a tour and dinner. We would probably need help in setting up, serving and basically making the place look “pretty” for the event. Although the trail is rustic by design the area to serve dinner would have to be somewhat tidy for people to feel comfortable.
Taking all this into consideration we tried to come up with a price to charge. With the price of insurance, then and equipment, additional help, currently what I have invested in the trail and future maintenance we figured that just to cover costs we would need to charge at least $45 per person. And then if we had a wine tasting to make it seem a little fancier and/or guest chefs the price would go up from there.
From going through this process it seems to me that agri-entertainment often needs to be on quite large scale and have a certain volume to make it worth while. We were thinking of just having a few people (10 to 12) a few times a year. But at this amount of traffic we would need to charge in the $75 to $125 range to really make it worth our while. And although I see it as possible to attract this type of upscale audience, considering I sell to two or three of the top ten restaurants in Columbus, the time and effort was just not available to devote to planning and executing the event. Or full time job is market gardening and during the summer we just did not see enough time to plan a dinner by ourselves.
Over the past 10 years we have set up and ran a number of dinners, a few fundraisers for OEFFA and one for a student organization at Kenyon College. These were not on our farm and all were well received and somewhat profitable for the organizations. But we participated mainly “just for fun”. In the context of this bike trail and dinner we were looking to make some serious money to supplement our income.
We had a farm tour in July with the Owl Creek Conservancy a group dedicated to preserving natural and agricultural lands in the Knox County. There were about 20 people who came. We also had a number of chefs from Columbus tour in August. There were about 15 people total and all were very interested in the idea of an on farm dinner and farm trail. And not that I have a good understanding of what we are trying to do I am planning to do a presentation at the annual OEFFA conference in March of 2007.
In addition we will continue our talks with the various chefs and restaurants who have shown a great interest about the trail/dinner agri-entertainment idea. Also a number of local farmers and business have shown some interest in teaming up and supporting this type of venture. I feel there is still a demand for this and we just need to access the right level of audience. I would also like to expand upon the CD of the farm idea and have yearly updates that could be downloaded from our website.