Agri-tourism destinations seek to expand their seasons

"We're agriculture, the heartbeat of Iowa"

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April 1, 2014 | 12:52 am

They're not just charming spots to spend a bucolic afternoon picking your own apples anymore.

From Bloomsbury Farm's corn maze and zip-line rides to Wilson's Orchards's tractor trips and outdoor weddings, more Eastern Iowa farms are adding ways to emphasis the business in agribusiness. And agri-tourism has become a growing segment.

The state defines agri-tourism as "any farm that offers things to see, things to do, and produce or gifts to buy, and are open to the public at least some parts of the year."

Slightly more than 40 percent of Iowa farms had an agri-tourism income in the 2007 Census of Agriculture from the National Agricultural Statistical Service. Farms providing agri-tourism and recreational services generated an average income of $24,276 in 2007 — an increase of 236 percent from 2002.

Bloomsbury Farm in Atkins, for example, is owned by David and Karen Petersen, who also own Petersen Farm, a 400-acre family farm that was passed down from generation to generation. The Petersens grow and harvest more than 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans annually.

Bloomsbury Farm, which began as a greenhouse and landscaping business in 1995, derives its revenue from an admission charge as well as additional fees for several special attractions. Known for its annual corn mazes, it is open to the public in September and October, and by appointment from March through August.

"I have a degree in floriculture, and after working in the floral industry for a while, I decided that I wanted to run my own business doing something I enjoyed," Karen Petersen recalled. "We opened Bloomsbury Farm and Greenhouse in one of our barns on the farm."

The business flourished as she ventured into the floral market.

In 1997, the first grade teacher of one of the Petersen's daughters asked to bring the class out to the farm for a hayrack ride. Karen Petersen agreed, and the concept of Bloomsbury Farm as an agri-tourism destination began to take root.

In 2004, a tornado wiped out the greenhouse and landscaping business. But rather than rebuild and continue the floral and landscaping business, the Petersens set about expanding the number of activities at Bloombury Farm.

"Our corn mazes continue to draw families every year," Karen Petersen said. "We've added Barnyard Buddies, the barrel train, the corn cannon, Grandma's Playhouse, hayrack rides, a jumping pillow, the Learning Barn, pumpkin patch, the tire maze, the Sugar Shack and Western Town.

"We opened a paintball course in July and the Zip, a 1,200-foot roundtrip zip line that takes you soaring 50 feet off the ground above Dry Creek and cornfields. While the paintball course and zip line opened a little late for this past summer, we think they will carry us through to next summer."

With an eye toward sustaining revenue through the year, the Petersens have expanded the Sugar Shack, where homemade fudge is sold alongside a gift shop. The 4,000-square-foot addition will house a year-round meeting center, candy and coffee shop, and a gift shop.

"We're using geothermal heating and cooling through the floor," Karen Petersen said. "We also have a liquor license, so we're doing a wine tasting for Rockwell Collins that also will include the zip line and kind of an adventure on the farm."

Petersen said the expanded facilities as well as special events such as Wine With the Witch, Scream Acres, Breakfast with the Easter Bunny and Breakfast with Santa Claus are designed to create a year-round revenue stream.

"We know it's going to be tough located out here in the country, but that's where the bakery and candy and the corporate events like team building and wine tastings will help," she said.

"People may not physically visit the farm, but they're used to ordering things on the web. We are expecting to see orders for Valentine's Day and other special occasions through the winter months."

Petersen said Bloomsbury Farm is already fielding requests to ride the Zip over snow-covered fields.

Through it all, Petersen said the emphasis at Bloomsbury Farm will remain primarily on showcasing Iowa agriculture.

"We're agriculture, the heartbeat of Iowa," she said. "When corporations like Rockwell Collins send people out here from other parts of the country and the world, they really enjoy driving through the fields to get here."

Bloomsbury Farm promotes itself through social media, maze websites, TripAdvisor and referrals from other Iowa agri-tourism locations.

For Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence, expanding revenue sources is important to the center's future, said Craig Johnson, its executive director.

"We're looking at regional safety training and other events like a local dentists' association meeting that generate revenue," Johnson explained. "We really have to make a budget every year. The more we become known for the facilities that we can offer, I think we will see more activity."

Heartland Acres is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization aimed at educating and entertaining visitors with displays and activities that tell the story of Iowa's agricultural heritage. The complex, which features a barn museum, antique tractor and equipment museum, one-room schoolhouse and an event center, opened in 2007.

Money to keep Heartland Acres operating throughout the year comes from an admission charge, event center rental fees, tax deductible donations, grants and sponsorships. It does not receive city or county property tax revenue or state funding.

Heartland Acres was able to complete a four-day process of cleaning and sealing the wooden shingles on a barn that houses many of the historically significant agricultural items by using donations from supporters and an Independence hotel/motel tax grant, Johnson explained.

Heartland Acres is looking at new marketing opportunities, including social media and inclusion on software being developed for motorists' GPS navigation systems, he added. Cooperative events with other agri-tourism attractions also contribute to financial support.

"People ask if we're concerned about another agricultural museum," Johnson said. "On the contrary, if people are visiting the new John Deere museum, more than likely they will want to visit similar agri-tourism sites and we all benefit.

"We've only been open for five years, so we really are a work in progress. We're constantly looking at how we can improve our exhibits and provide something new for those who have visited us before."

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