McLean County Farmers Seek To Grow Trendy Crop: Tourism
Many U.S. farmers are struggling to overcome a triple dose of bad news: trade disputes, low crop prices and, in some cases, flooding.
But in Central Illinois more farmers are finding new ways to make use of their land to help their profit margins and to help the public better understand where their food comes from.
Agritourism has become the fastest growing dimension in the agriculture industry.
Nick Anderson of Carlock comes from a family of entrepreneurs.
The 40-year-old account manager at Dell Technologies is about to take his first deep dive into self-employment.
Wanting a business where he can “work the land” as he calls it, he came upon 54 acres of largely uninhabited land in rural Heyworth that recently went on sale. The land features hundreds of species of trees, five acres of lakes and an apple orchard.
Anderson and his fiancé’s bid to buy the property was accepted. Now he and bride-to-be Desi Stephens will soon open what they are calling The Hesed House. Hesed is a Hebrew word for ‘love’ or ‘goodness.’
“We picked that word because we feel like it encapsulates our mission of what we want to do, to create a beautiful place,” he said.
Anderson and Stephens envision the site as a venue for destination weddings. The first wedding there will be their own on June 1.
“We were surprised (our bid) was accepted and then we kind of joked around and said maybe if the closing (goes on schedule) we could be the first ones,” Stephens said. “Naturally it kind of has progressed that way.”
“We are getting first-hand experience of what our future clientele will be going through, and I think for us that’s going to be invaluable in the long run,” Anderson said. “But it is a cool story. We are going to be the first wedding at our own wedding venue.”
Stephens, 32, graduates in May from Indiana University and she will run day-to-day operations. The couple said this venture is much more than just wide-eyed romanticism. They see an untapped market for rustic-theme weddings.
“There’s higher demand for outdoor weddings and seeing that as an availability option for us is what made us want to go into this to because we want to provide that,” Stephens said.
Anderson suggested you could look no further than Pinterest to see more young couple’s desires to connect with the outdoors.
“We’ve noticed the social trends of weddings, for instance, as enjoyable as they are, some people are tired of – if I can just say – a banquet hall, hotel wedding and there’s a trend where, especially the younger generation is enjoying being out in the country in a beautiful setting,” Anderson said.
Anderson and Stephens are looking to tap into what appears to be an expanding appetite for agritourism. The Hesed House is one of just three proposals that McLean County government officials have been asked to permit in the last six months.
“More and more farms and more and more of agriculture is try to connect food to the consumer,” said Raghela Scavuzzo, local foods program manager for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “The consumer wants it. They want to get on the farm. They want to get to know what’s happening to their food, but this is also a great value add to the farm.
“It’s a great way for them to make an extra dollar and tell their story at the same time.”
Scavuzzo, who is also director of the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, said ag tourism has been around for decades, but the local food movement of the last decade has taken it to the next level.
One way farmers have done that is through specialty crops. Illinois is the nation’s leader in producing pumpkins, popcorn and horseradish and it’s among the top producers of asparagus, cauliflower, lima beans and sweet peas.
“Most of them aren’t exporting, most of them aren’t doing wholesale, so agritourism is how they move their products,” Scavuzzo said. “If it’s an apple orchard or a pumpkin patch, they are looking for a way to sell their product and getting you on the farm is the most economical way to do it.”
She said ag producers are here to capitalize on that while also looking to dispel myths some have about the industry.
“They are looking for you to understand their story and how they tell their story,” Scavuzzo said. “It’s a little bit of consumers demanding more but it’s also a little bit more of the farmers saying ‘Let’s open our doors so you can see what we really do.’”
Telling their story
Funk Farms in rural Shirley, just southwest of Bloomington, trumpets itself as the birthplace of commercial hybrid corn. It’s rich history dates back nearly 200 years and that’s what drew Brian Bangert, a third-generation family farmer, to go to work there after college. He became general manager in 2013.
“One of the most difficult things for a family to do is to keep their farm in their family and this family managed to do that,” Bangert said. “The dedication to preserve that was really eye-opening for me.”
The 2,500-acre cattle farm also grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa. There’s also a horse stable on the property. Bangert says the farm has a history of inviting the public onto its property dating back to the cornhusking contests of the 1930s, but now the farm is looking to expand in the agritourism arena by building an annex onto an existing Quonset hut.
The 2,400-square foot multi-purpose building would not only house Funk Farms offices, but could be used for conferences, farm tours and farm-to-fork dinners.
Bangert said the farm already hosts three or four public events each year, but the new building would enable them to greatly expand. Though, he understands it’s a considerable commitment of time, something that can be in short supply for farmers, especially during the planting and harvest seasons.
“One of the hardest things for agriculture to do is to tell our story on our level,” Bangert said. “We are incredibly busy and it’s hard to engage the public.”
Bangert’s efforts to engage the public are about more than just growing the business, he wants to tell the story of agriculture, what he said is under attack by what he considers to be misinformed health advocates who are trying to steer people away from almost anything that’s produced on the farm.
“The research that comes out says eggs are bad for us, that eating too much fat and protein is bad for us,” Bangert said. “The real data that exists out there that was suppressed is going to come to the light and I think we need to be prepared for that because protein, animals and fats are going to be back. Butter is going to be back on the table.”
Bangert said so much negative publicity about red meat has had a devastating effect on the industry.
“There are so many family farmers that abandoned animal agriculture because of this, because they thought we can’t fight this anymore,” Bangert said. “It’s us against Big Parma. It’s us against other large corporations, dieticians and doctors that say what we are doing is bad for human health.”
Bangert cited books including ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories’ and ‘The Big Fat Surprise’ as works that challenge conventional dietary guidelines.
As Bangert tries to become a pied piper for the more traditional ‘meat and potatoes’ diet, he knows farmers have to use modern technology to spread their message.
He acknowledged there are new ways farmers can do that, through social media and video blogging, something he said his 18-year-old son is teaching him to do.
“I guess some people come by it naturally, for others maybe like me, I may either have to work with somebody who understands it or I’ll have to get coached up on it myself to learn more about it,” Bangert said.
Many farmers don’t have advertising budgets. They typically rely on trade magazines, favorable news coverage – what the industry calls earned media - and tourism bureaus to spread their word.
The Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau devotes a page on its website to agritourism.
President and CEO Crystal Howard said the emerging market for agritourism benefits from the fact that more Americans are seeking travel destinations closer to home.
“There used to be those big family vacations all the time, but I think more and more as people are working they are tending to take shorter vacations and they are looking for areas that were weekend getaways,” Howard said. “We can be that.”
Howard said the CVB focuses its advertising budget mostly on sporting events and larger annual conventions, items which she said show the largest return on investment, but its budget for agritourism could grow in the future as more sites fit that bill.
“I think that it’s going to play an important role in the future,” Howard said. “We are going to continue to market it as we have been, but I think that the more inventory we have the better we are able to do that.”
The Illinois Farm Bureau’s Raghela Scavuzzo said agritourism benefits much more than just the farmer.
“They are probably not just stopping on the farm,” she said. “They might stop and eat somewhere. They might stop and get gas somewhere. It can drive an entire rural community and it’s really important to not just look at this from not just an agritourism piece of how the farm gets extra dollars but also how the community can get extra dollars.”
How to get started
Launching into the tourism business can be a major hurdle for an ag producer, even a highly successful ag entrepreneur will tell you that.
“It’s not necessarily an easy thing,” said Ken Myszka, who owns Epiphany Farms in rural Downs and four farm-to-table restaurants in McLean County with plans to open a fifth soon. Epiphany employs 180 workers and are looking to add another 70 by the end of the year. “You have to (do) a lot. I was a little nervous.”
Not long after Myszka, his wife Nanam and fellow chef Stu Hummel, opened Epiphany Farms restaurant in Bloomington, he had his eye on 70 acres of farmland his parents owned in rural Downs that he wanted to turn into a farm and tourist site.
At the time, McLean County rules specified the only agritourism that was allowed to get a special use permit were for vineyards.
“It said in the code you have to have four acres of vines that were suitable to grow a crop used for wine,” Myszka said. “It was really expensive for me to get four acres of vines in, plus I was not a professional vineyard planter or grower.”
Myszka said he remained undeterred.
“I was going to make it happen one way or the other,” Myszka declared. “The staff (at McLean County Building and Zoning) has been very informed about our ambitions and our dreams have been as Epiphany Farms and what we are trying to accomplish.”
At the time, Epiphany was farming on a much smaller plot, about nine acres south of Bloomington, where they would host field trips and other tours, but that presented a challenge.
“It started to get a little sketchy for us do tours for businesses and other associations because we weren’t a legal commercial place,” Myszka said. “We weren’t able to charge but we also didn’t really have the right amenities.
“We didn’t have handicap accessible parking. We didn’t have handicap accessible restrooms. It wasn’t necessarily legit.”
In 2017 McLean County expanded what it considers agritourism to make more sites eligible.
“We’ve had a demand for that kind of a public use facility in the county, but we would ordinarily prefer that to be in town unless it’s related to agriculture in some kind of way,” said County Building and Zoning Director Phil Dick.
Dick said the county has become more accommodating for agritourism sites as more farmers seek this form of vertical integration.
“They have to go through the special use process and that’s somewhat of an expense, but what they are gambling on with that expense is that they need to have customers and entrepreneurial people figure out ways to do that,” Dick said.
Special use permits in McLean County cost between $400 and $700 for property smaller than 100 acres.
After researching what he could legally turn into an agritourism site, Myszka conceived of a plan to buy the farmland in rural Downs and turn it into a vineyard, an animal farm for cattle, chicken, pigs, goats, rabbits and ducks, hundreds of varieties of vegetables and a bed and breakfast at the home when he and his wife are living now.
“I’m still kinda blown away that we’ve been able to make it work and we owe a lot of people and we are really lucky to have so many people in this community that have supported us,” Myszka said. “We have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in this and it’s not a guarantee even with us.”
At the new Epiphany Estate, they put up a new 9,000-square foot event barn that’s used for weddings, fundraisers, corporate events and ag education programs.
Myszka said they plan to add another building at the site, that will free up the barn to house its animals in the winter.
The current nine-acre farm near Bloomington, which for now still serves as Epiphany’s distribution center, is now for sale. Zillow lists the price at $395,000.
Myszka said he wants to ramp up to about 20 public events a year to make it work financially. He offered the reminder that Epiphany is a for-profit business even though its efforts to promote sustainability is often thought of as a concept most promoted in the non-profit world.
“It’s one thing for guests to come and spend an hour or two hours with us to have dinner, it’s another thing when they come and spend a day with you,” Myszka said. “They learn about your ideas and your hospitality and the way that you steward the land and the way you care for not only them and the nutrition you are trying to provide for them, but also the ecosystem and the land you are caring for.”
The challenges Epiphany Farms and Funk Farms have faced in establishing a place in the ag-tourism market don’t tell the whole story.
Scavuzzo with the Illinois Farm Bureau said farmers have to understand that diving into the tourism industry is a full-time commitment, which can be a lot, especially for a family of farmers who hardly know such a thing as down time.
“You are having people on your farm, that means that your farm is always open,” Scavuzzo said. “How do you create that barrier for your family? How do you shut off and create a balance? Those are important conversations we have when we are talking about starting an agritourism business.”
Farms getting smaller in number, larger in size
A recent Illinois Farm Bureau report said the number of farms in the state has dropped by 70 percent over the last century, while remaining farm operations have grown bigger as aging farmers struggle to find successors.
“That is why farms have gotten larger, there’s less people that want to do it, but we still have to produce the same amount of food,” Scavuzzo said. “The need for food isn’t going away and we have to make sure we are always producing it. So sometimes that does mean scaling up the size of four farm and scaling up your production to make sure people still have access.”
Myszka said that gets to the essence of what Epiphany Farms is all about, fostering a more educated public and a more sustainable food supply.
“As a state that has such a robust agricultural economy, I don’t think that it’s just we have to import over 95 percent of our food. I think that’s ridiculous,” Myszka said. “Before you can focus on feeding the world you should probably focus on feeding yourself better.”
Myszka said the environmental component of sustainable farming is also important to him, fearing the long-term effects of climate change. He said it will be up to the private sector to lead the way.
“I’m not going to sit around and wait for the government to pass some law or some rule or give out some type of money to make this work,” Myszka said. “It’s something that our community and everybody who cares about this stuff needs to just put their foot down and start voting with their fork and saying ‘I am going to support these types of businesses and I am going to eat this type of food because this is what’s good for me and good for my future and good for the earth’s future.”
Myszka said the U.S. food system is too vast and complex to change overnight, but he will do what he can to use tourism to help develop those who will farm the land for generations to come.
The Bloomington-Normal CVB markets its tourism to tour operators which can bring in big advertising dollars to a community.
The Travel Industry Association ranks outdoor activities as the third most popular vacation destination behind shopping and family events.
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