Susann Wendel spoke about the reason she and husband Phil turned to agritourism at the Food and Growers Association Winter Conference Feb. 1 at Batesville Middle School.
She recalled, "We were hog and grain farmers. In December 1999 hog prices went down to 8 cents a pound. No matter how good of a farmer you were, you were losing money."
"We needed to move on," so the remaining hogs were sold. "I don't miss the work, I don't miss all the power washing, but I do miss the little ones sometimes. We worked hard on improving, but it didn't make any difference. ... We failed, but we still ate and had a roof over our heads."
Susann worked part-time jobs, then got a teacher certification. After a friend found more income growing mums, Wendel started a chrysanthemum business, too.
"I would like to say I sat down and did a business plan ... but I didn't. I talked to my friend about how to grow mums and I did a lot of praying."
It took awhile for the woman to become an expert mum grower. "That first year I must have been calling ... (Yoder Seed, which offered technical support) every week. By the end of the summer ... they recognized my voice."
Before choosing a specialty item, try to determine if there is a market for it, she advised. The first year Wendel sold her flowers at three farmers' markets. "If selling at a farmers' market, I would suggest you get some way of accepting credit cards. People do not carry cash anymore."
When she would try to hand somebody a flyer, they would say, "No thank you." When the flyer included mum tips, customers would accept it. The flyer had farm information and a map on its back. Now their flowers are only sold at the farm, not markets, saving transportation labor.
In 2000, the family grew 2,000 mums. "We were sold out by the middle of September. Now I grow 3,600 ...We can still sell out. I do 51 different varieties, which is a lot of fun." The pots with seedlings are set on mats with drip irrigation.
As they contemplated a business named Wendel Farms Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch, the speaker urged attendees to consider three questions:
• Do you have the startup money? "In agritourism, it's not like 'Field of Dreams.' You build it and they will come. You have to really work" at attracting tourists.
• Do you have the time? "Sometimes people are working full time. Do they want to spend every night and weekend doing this project?"
• Do you have the passion? "Is your spouse behind you on this? Sometimes we get these ideas ..."
In 2001 the corn maze debuted. Now their daughter designs the maze (last year it was little boy blue, come blow your horn, the sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn), which is sent to a company that maps it on GPS, then Susann mows it out. "The problem: the corn keeps growing back. I find if I go in and till it, the corn doesn't grow back and (tourists) don't trip over roots."
The maze on 6.7 acres has 3 miles of paths. She must mow it twice to get the perfect width. The maze has three exits — early, emergency and finish. "You can stay in there as long as you want." There is no crop insurance for a corn maze.
She reflected, "We've had a lot of people say, 'If you had a haunted corn maze, you would make so much more money.' The reason I have people come to the farm is to teach them where their food comes from ... not to be scared," which would be a whole different clientele.
in 2002 the family added a pumpkin patch and hayrides. "That was when we really started getting people out to the farm."
Family members were the labor force at first, but some have moved away. "My daughter does all of our social media, helps with school tours one day a week and puppet shows on Saturday."
"As it got bigger, our family couldn't handle it. I have some retired people who help, such as running cash registers. A huge group of students help us. I take applications to my FFA advisers" in Franklin County, plus Ohio's Talawanda and Ross counties since the family's property is on the state line.
"The people I do not hire are kids who love animals. Mom wants Little Johnny to get a job ... he likes to pet animals, but not clean up after them." Wendel observed, "I'm very particular. Pens and portalets are cleaned daily." She knows their farm could be the only one families ever visit and she wants memories to be great.
When getting into agritourism, "You need to think of everything," including parking. She advised getting a liability insurance special event policy if charging admission and completing the documents to become an LLC to protect yourselves.
Over the years attractions have grown. Campfire and hayride packages appeal to church groups, Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and birthday parties. "We have pony rides and there's always a line." Hayrides and pony rides will increase insurance bills.
Kids play in a corn box with corn instead of sand. Persons on adult and children's bikes can speed around the trike track. She reported, "In 2016 we bought an old combine and had it fixed up as a combine slide," a big draw for visitors of all ages.
Buildings have evolved as well. "We started out with a tent and a money box," but the tent blew away. A former hog farrowing house became a country store once a porch was added and walls torn out. It has 25 vendors, offering crafts, gourds, honey and jams. "The more stuff you have, the more you're going to draw people in."
"School tours are a big thing." The Wendels host 2,500 kids each September-October. "We do take reservations. I have a very structured program."
Using picnic tables at first, now the family has lunchrooms in a barn. "You've got to be prepared for inclement weather."
The three- to four-hour school visits are geared for preschool through second grades and also special needs children and adults. Wendel reported, "I start out with a puppet show," then students rotate to different stations.
The dairy barn station has six plywood cows that children can pretend to milk. "I hope every kid who leaves our farm remembers cows do not give chocolate milk!"
Each student gets a pumpkin after a hayride to the pumpkin patch. At another station, they learn about farm animals. The playtime spot offers tumbling tubes, a strawbale maze and combine slide.
The little farmer program has seven areas. Each student gets a basket and fills it with real wool and a potato that was dug; plus a pretend apple, carrot found underground, honey and milk containers, flower and egg (actually a goblin egg gourd painted white).
At the end, students place their items in correct baskets, helping them with the skill of sorting. "We use every opportunity we can to educate."
Always conscious of marketing, the family gives every student an orange flyer to take home that details attractions, weekend hours and a map with a $2 discount for the child if the family visits. A website at www.wendelfarms.com offers details, too.
There is another asset that could produce income. According to the speaker, "I just was in Austin, Texas, at a Farm Bureau convention." They toured an olive farm that had an event barn, where a lot of weddings have taken place. The farmer told the tourists, "We sell more wine than we do olive oil." Party barns "are a big moneymaker," but insurance is costly.
"We did do a couple of weddings at our farm." She realized, "I do not have the time to be setting up tents and looking for menus. You can rent the area ... but we do not have a liquor license. If you want liquor on the farm, you have to furnish your own liquor insurance and liability."
Of the tourist destination, she said that in addition to money, "we've got a lot of friends we've made through this."
"99.9% of the people who come are absolutely wonderful. ... I love the people who come."