Call it a growing phenomenon: Agritourism is emerging as a popular group travel activity, especially in the heartland states.
The Midwest is full of wonderful agritourism opportunities, from ranches and dairies to fish farms, cranberry marshes and museums. Here are a few agritourism options in the Midwest that cater to group travelers who want to learn more about how their food is produced.
Plumlee Buffalo Ranch
Shirley and Larry Plumlee raise a herd of bison on 400 acres in Kansas’ Flint Hills. The property is populated by nutritious native grasses that are perfect for feeding bison. The Plumlees decided to raise buffalo 18 years ago because they are so much easier to take care of than beef cattle.
“We don’t have to give them shots,” said Shirley Plumlee. “They never get sick, so we have zero vet bills.”
Bison never have calving problems, and they have babies only in May and June, so the couple doesn’t have to worry about their calves surviving in winter’s arctic temperatures.
Groups of up to 40 people can tour the ranch in the back of a large wagon pulled by a truck. It allows them to get close to these large creatures in a safe manner. Shirley is usually the tour guide, telling guests about American bison and how they differ from beef cattle.
Many visitors are more interested in the ranch’s wildflowers than the buffalo. The Plumlees are happy to tell them about the many native wildflowers that pop up on the property every year. Groups can feed the catfish in a local pond and visit the remains of a homestead on the property that dates back to the 1800s. They also are invited into the Plumlees’ home, where they can see a mounted buffalo head.
Green Dirt Farm
Green Dirt Farm is a sheep dairy in the bluffs of the Missouri River Valley. It is one of about 100 sheep dairies in the U.S. and is known for its award-winning artisan cheeses made from the milk of grass-fed sheep.
The farm, which began producing cheese commercially in 2008, is outside Weston, a historic frontier river port town that is preserved from its heyday in the 1840s and 1850s. Groups that want to tour the farm start at the Green Dirt Farm Creamery Café in town before driving out to the farm. They tour the dairy to see how the sheep are milked and then go to the cheese kitchen to see how the cheese is made. When the tour is over, they return to the cafe for a cheese tasting. Groups can also schedule cheese tastings or farm-to-table dinners in the events barn, which was the farm’s original milking parlor and cheese kitchen.
The farm has about 150 sheep, but it also purchases sheep’s milk from the local Amish community.
“We can’t produce enough milk on the farm for all of our sales needs,” said Sarah Hoffmann, managing director and owner/operator of Green Dirt Farm. She has also partnered with local cow dairy farmers to bring in cow’s milk to blend with the sheep’s milk.
Green Dirt Farm produces a variety of cheeses, primarily soft ripened and French-style cheeses.
Legacy of the Plains Museum
The Legacy of the Plains Museum, which sits on a 100-acre campus in Gering, Nebraska, tells the stories of the communities and people who have farmed the area since the 1880s. About 85 acres of the property is still farmland and pasture, and the museum keeps a small herd of longhorns that are popular with visitors.
The museum grows potatoes and dry edible beans using older equipment and farming practices. Groups that visit can take a tour of the property and outbuildings with a knowledgeable guide or take a tractor and wagon ride around the property to learn about the different equipment and farming techniques that were used on the plains from the late 1880s.
The museum has five outbuildings to explore, among them a large metal building that houses old tractors, trucks, farm equipment and implements; a blacksmith shop; and the Wiedeman Farmstead Home, a former farmhouse that got moved to the property. The upstairs is decorated in 1950s styles, and the first floor is set in the 1930s. The Japanese Hall was a community center built by the Japanese American community in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, in 1928. It was moved to the museum property and will be a mini museum of Japanese American artifacts from the area.
The farm is at the base of Scotts Bluff National Monument.
Freshwater Farms of Ohio
Freshwater Farms of Ohio is an indoor fish hatchery that produces rainbow trout in its solar-heated greenhouses. The year-round facility is the largest indoor fish farm in Ohio. Dave Smith started the operation 35 years ago on an abandoned 24-acre chicken farm.
Since the farm’s inception, Smith has found many ways to enhance the operation and make it more interesting for the groups and visitors who want to stop by, including hosting numerous festivals and events on the property. Visitors love to pet the six-foot-long sturgeon in the sturgeon petting zoo; handle aquatic critters like crawfish, turtles and salamanders; or feed the trout in the farm’s 35-foot-deep outside tanks.
Besides trout, the farm produces 27 other types of fish, including pond-stocking varieties like perch, bluegill, catfish, minnows, snails, goldfish and koi. It also grows water plants like lilies, lotus and water iris. Those plants help purify the water that is a byproduct of fish farming. The farm also has about nine acres of demonstration gardens for wildflowers to encourage the natural diversity of insects and pollinators on the farm.
“I understand how diversity is a real strength in an ecosystem,” Smith said. “In the last three years of doing this, we have had zero need for spray. When you keep the native populations of many species of insects and spiders, the trouble insects can’t get a foothold.”
Groups can tour the fish hatchery, the gardens and the ponds, learning more about their symbiotic relationships.
Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin
Farmers have been harvesting cranberries in Wisconsin for generations, several of them since the mid-1800s. Groups wanting to sample everything cranberry should take a trip along the Cranberry Highway, a 50-mile stretch that takes visitors past cranberry beds. Groups can start in either Wisconsin Rapids or Warrens, visit the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center and schedule a guided tour of a local cranberry operation.
Native cranberries love the area’s sandy, acidic soil. Visitors can learn more about how the tart red fruit is grown and harvested by visiting the Discovery Center. A video there shows how cranberries are planted, nurtured and grown and then harvested during the first three weeks of October. After visiting the museum, visitors can drive around a smaller cranberry loop in Warrens past cranberry marshes and a farm that grows aronia, a superfruit like cranberries that is high in antioxidants and grows on bushes about the same size as blueberry bushes. The Warrens Cranberry Festival, which draws 130,000 people over three days each September, is another great time for groups to visit.
Groups that want to see a marsh can set up a tour of Wetherby Cranberry Company, a third-generation family farm. Nodji VanWychen, who owns the farm with her husband, Jim, will step on a tour bus and give a 90-minute guided tour showing visitors the harvest, giving them the chance to walk down into a dry cranberry bed to see how the vines grow and then showing them through the packing and receiving facility.