The Planted Row: Agritourism offers fun ways to diversify

Farm Forum

Maybe it’s because I was born in the middle of harvest, but autumn is my favorite season. The changing colors of the leaves are beautiful. The cool air is refreshing. I love the flavors of apples, pumpkins and pecans that are so prevalent in food this time of year. The clean smell of harvest dust is on the wind, and storage bins are being filled with another year’s crop.

It’s also a busy time of year for farmers. That time crunch — the balance between letting your crop dry down in the field and the rush to get the crop harvested before the first snows of winter — is a new thing for me. The growing season is quite a bit longer where I grew up, and it hardly ever snows. However, my family is pretty busy back on the farm in Mississippi for a different reason.

While we don’t have livestock, my family’s farm is diversified in other ways. We have row crops, and we also grow vegetables. That makes for a busy summer and a busy fall harvest, but every October, things get really intense. You see, back in 2003, my father, who is chock full of crazy ideas, decided to start a corn maze.

My grandfather told him it wouldn’t work, told him no one would pay money to walk through a corn field at night, but once Dad latches onto an idea, he doesn’t let it go. He grew a field of pumpkins so kids could come in the day, tour the farm, and take home a pumpkin to carve. He also set up stations where younger kids could decorate small pumpkins with paint, glitter and other art supplies.

He talked his sister into setting up a concession stand, but that quickly grew into Korny’s Diner, which offers a wide variety of foods (including popular “fair” foods like fried Twinkies and fried candy bars). The diner has tables set up with checkerboards, which turned out to be a big draw for the older crowd.

Dad talked another sister into opening a general store that sells T-shirts, glow sticks, and ton of other knickknacks that light up and are generally irresistible to kids younger than 13. He set up a stage and arranged for local bands and gospel groups to play on the weekends.

For the younger kids, he built a corn pit — basically, a giant sandbox that uses corn instead of sand — and kid’s maze made out of hay bales. He also built a pyramid made of hay bales and let kids (and some adults) play “king of the hill.” Down in the pasture, he set up bonfire stations and provided hot dogs, buns and marshmallows for church groups, birthday parties, and school groups to have private parties.

He modified old cotton wagons and gave everyone going through the maze a hayride from the diner/store/stage area down to the maze.

It was a hit. Even though the farm is in a small rural community, Dad puts thousands of people through the maze every October.

During the day, school groups bring kids for a tour of a working farm. At night, the older folks in the community come out, eat dinner, play checkers and listen to the music. Parents bring their kids to play in the corn and hay before taking their turn through the maze. It’s very popular with teenagers who either come in packs or bring dates. (Give teens an opportunity to be alone in the dark, and they will jump at the chance.)

People don’t just go through the maze. They linger there, eating and talking with neighbors. It’s not only agritourism, it’s family entertainment and community development.

Now that fall is here, I wouldn’t mind having a place like that to take my kids here in northeast South Dakota. With some experts saying grain prices could stay low for years, are there any farmers here on the Northern Plains looking to diversify in a unique way?