Hungry to Learn

farm
How Agritourism
Can Lead to Agri-Education
By Matt Low Photography by Stephanie Nahas

In places like Miami, San Diego and New York City, tourism is ingrained into the culture. In the Midwest, appealing to tourists outside (and even within) the region sometimes requires exploring nontraditional tourism venues.

One area of tourism burgeoning rapidly in Nebraska and surrounding states is agritourism, which is visiting local farms to do everything from rummage through a pumpkin patch, going on a hayrack ride or sampling wines made from locally grown grapes. According to Shannon Peterson with the State of Nebraska’s Department of Economic Development’s Travel and Tourism Division, “Nebraska is actively pursuing, promoting and encouraging agritourism across the state,” and even has an agritourism development consultant on staff.

Agritourism serves a number of purposes for both the farmer and the community. The farmer is given the opportunity to bring consumers directly to the farm, and those consumers may then pick or purchase fruits, veggies, eggs and other produce right from the source. Going on hayrack rides or walking through corn mazes is a family friendly way to spend time outdoors and appreciate the countryside. These activities can also be an added source of income for farmers before or after the busy planting and harvest seasons. Rural communities benefit from bringing in visitors from surrounding cities, not just to nearby farms but also to small, locally owned shops and restaurants that (hopefully) still remain in town centers.

Increasing demand for farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) in recent years suggests a strong desire to reestablish connections to local agriculture beyond the more familiar activities associated with agritourism. There are a growing number of people who want to do more than visit a local farm for a day of fun and recreation; instead, what more and more people seem to be craving is agri-education. While there is certainly nothing wrong with breathing the fresh farm air, snapping a few photos and going home with fresh produce, for those willing to dig a little deeper, agri-education can lead to an even richer experience.

How long does it take to grow beets? Where do blackberries come from? What does a free-range chicken look like? These are all questions that those who have lost touch with basic agricultural life—even those, like myself, who are just one generation removed from a family farm—may not know the answers to. Luckily, there are a growing number of farmers in the area who welcome members of the local community to visit their farms. These farmers provide opportunities to learn the basics, to see firsthand the real work of agriculture and the processes of getting food from farm-to-table, and maybe even offer you the chance to do a little planting (or weeding) if you are so inclined.

A recent visit to three farms in the Omaha and Lincoln area exhibited the potential that this sort of agritourism has to offer.  Common Good Farm in Raymond (just north of Lincoln), Black Sheep Farms in Bennington and Bryan Family Farm near Fort Calhoun all adhere to similar growing practices and agricultural philosophies—namely, growing food organically, paying attention to things like soil health and biodiversity and keeping our local “food shed” as safe and vibrant as possible. All are eager to impart the knowledge gained and lessons learned through years of experience to anyone who would like to come out for a visit.

Ruth Chantry and Evrett Lunquist of Common Good Farm have been bringing people onto their farm for more than a decade, and seem to have a good sense of what people are looking for when they make the trip. The farm is certified organic and biodynamic, one of only a handful in the whole country to hold both designations.  Biodynamic farms take additional measures to ensure that the work of farming has little or no negative impacts on the environment, largely by making the farm self-sustaining—things like seeds, feed and fertilizer all come from the farm itself. It’s worth a visit to Common Good Farm just to hear what Ruth and Evrett can teach you about growing food responsibly and with the whole health of the land in mind.

Local school children who visit Common Good Farm are especially interested in seeing the livestock—hogs and chickens in particular—that are kept as a food source for the farmers and CSA members, as well as contributors to the farm’s biodynamic system. In the late spring, a birding workshop is held on the farm to promote the importance of responsible farming, as well as larger concerns of biodiversity and conservation. These events, along with annual plant sales, open the farm up to visitors throughout the growing season and provide ample opportunities to see unique, thoughtful agricultural practice in action. After more than a decade of making ecological and health-focused farming accessible to visitors of all ages and walks of life, it is comforting to know that Ruth and Evrett extend the role of “surrogate farmer” to residents of eastern Nebraska looking to reconnect with a less industrialized form of agriculture.

At Black Sheep Farms, a special emphasis is placed on volunteering, including a recommended 10 hours per season for their CSA members. The volunteering fosters a closer connection between the food we eat and the real, often challenging work that goes into growing it. The farm itself is located on a beautiful property that has a deep history of organic and biodynamic farming going back nearly half a century. This will be the fifth growing season on the property for Kelly and Brian Smith, and they are fully invested in sustaining a healthy local foodshed by growing heirloom varieties and practicing chemical-free agriculture.

While Black Sheep Farms has established a strong reputation for its excellent CSA—and for being a local food source for the Grey Plume restaurant in Midtown Omaha—Kelly and Brian hope to reach our local food community in a number of ways: by opening the farm up for individual or group tours, by hosting a Chicken Academy for those interested in raising their own feathery friends and by speaking throughout the region on food-related topics.

Eventually, their goal is to have a facility on site for the purpose of holding classes on seed saving and growing flowers, an expanded Chicken Academy and to impart any other knowledge they have gained in starting Black Sheep Farms from the ground up. Given

Kelly’s background in education, it should come as no surprise that farming and teaching go hand-in-hand. For those of us who still have a lot to learn about the practice (and art) of growing food responsibly, we’re fortunate that such a willing and experienced resource exists in our community.

A visit to the Bryan Family Farm allows participants to get a good sense of how small farms get their start and to see firsthand the potential of agritourism in the region. The experience at the farm exemplifies the appeal of living simply and, as Sarah Bryan says, “the joy and peace of getting one’s hands dirty.” Currently focused on growing blackberries and black raspberries, this farm is nestled among timber in a well-shaded valley that also offers beautiful scenery and more opportunities for bird enthusiasts.  Sarah and David Bryan both grew up in the Fort Calhoun area, and after spending some time in urban locales like Brooklyn, New York, and Washington, D.C., know firsthand the benefits of living in direct contact with the land. As with Common Good Farm and Black Sheep Farms, a visitor to Bryan Family Farm will experience an eagerness to pass along the joys and challenges of starting a chemical- and pesticide-free farm.

In addition to its thriving berry plants, Bryan Family Farm is in the process of growing the size, scale and scope of its operations and offerings. Future plans for the farm include an ecologically-friendly chicken coop, a wood-fired bread oven and opportunities for area students to gain firsthand agricultural experience. Berry farms also lend themselves to family friendly activities like picking fruit straight from the tree or bush, and the farm will soon have room to accommodate these and other traditional forms of agritourism.  Right now, however, this farm might appeal most to those who desire to see a place still very much enmeshed in the land, working with—not against—its surroundings to produce healthy, sustainable food.

All three of these farms have unique lessons to teach and activities to offer, and all three are at different stages in the development and size of their operations. Yet together they represent a new wave of agritourism in Nebraska and the Midwest that is leading the local community forward, by reconnecting people to the land and by pointing the way toward smarter agriculture.

If You Go:

Common Good Farm

Just north of Lincoln in Raymond, NE

Email: farmers@commongoodfarm.com

Website: www.CommonGoodFarm.com

Black Sheep Farms

Just northwest of Omaha in Bennington, NE

Email: farm@blacksheepfarms.com

Website: www.BlackSheepFarms.com

Bryan Family Farm

Just north of Omaha in Fort Calhoun, NE

Email: bryanfamilyfarm@gmail.com

402.533.4464

Matt Low enjoys exploring local food and agriculture throughout the Midwest with his wife and family, including his sister-in-law photographer Stephanie Nahas. Matt and Stephanie first encountered Edible Communities in Iowa City, Iowa, (Edible Iowa River Valley) and Austin, Texas (Edible Austin); both are thrilled to be able to contribute to the Edible family as part of Edible Omaha.


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