Agritourism is a delight to all the senses

The business of bringing folks onto one’s farm or ranch for them to have an experience of some sort, and have them pay money for it, is about as old as the concept of the country rooming house.

Today, agritourism has become a major source of income for many farmers and ranchers. Indeed, for some, it’s a sole source of funding. What is remarkable is the diversity of ways agritourism businesses are generating that income.

One only has to take a look at the list of most visited agritourism locations in Kansas generated by the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism and Arrivalist, a visitation-intelligence company that empowers marketers with a suite of measurements to evaluate the lifetime value of a visitor.

In 2014, KDWPT was the first state agency to partner with Arrivalist to track visitors entering Kansas after visiting KDWPT’s websites online or seeing one of their digital ads. Attractions with the most tourist visits tracked through Arrivalist in 2018 were recognized at a lunch ceremony on Feb. 6, 2019, during the Destination Statehouse event.

Several of the award winners offer a “City Slickers” style experience of working with experienced ranchers in moving cattle from winter to summer pastures and back on horseback and bunking in distinctive lodgings ranging from rustic to luxurious.

Others offer an opportunity to “get away from it all” with a night in a country bed and breakfast. How about an evening trail ride and chuck wagon dinner to shed the city stress? It’s there, too.

A few are day experiences, with fun things for young and old.

“Historically, out-of-state visitor information relied on self-reporting, and marketers were only getting a fraction of the data they needed to accurately understand visitation behavior,” a KDWPT release said. “Arrivalist uses concrete data to report actual foot-traffic captured in real time.

“The company unveiled Arrivalist, Kansas’ most-visited sites, to provide consumers, travelers and businesses with accurate, unbiased travel advice. Arrivalist only captures unique visitors at each attraction once per trip, allowing the company to offer clients the most precise visitation behavior.”

The most visited site awardees make up a compendium of diversity, offering delights for all the senses. The top sites were as follows:

  • Ringneck Ranch, Tipton;

  • Flying W Ranch, Cedar Point;

  • Gieringer’s Family Orchard and Berry Farm, Edgerton;

  • Gyp Hills Guest Ranch, Medicine Lodge;

  • Hickory Creek Ranch, Spring Hill;

  • Hooray Ranch, Kingman;

  • Pioneer Bluffs, Matfield;

  • Prairie Lavender Farm, Bennington;

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  • The Barns and Timber Creek, Winfield;

  • Red Rock Guest Ranch, Soldier; and

  • Walter’s Farm and Pumpkin Patch, Burns.

Then there are specific experiences, such as Tipton’s Ringneck Ranch, which offers over 10,000 acres of native pheasant, bobwhite quail and prairie chicken habitat on pastures and a small amount of crop stubble.

At the peak of the October to March season, 50 persons per day traverse the ranch in search of birds, most of which are placed there via growing operations around the area.

“Ours is a destination location for people who normally hunt quail and ducks, but are looking to have the experience of chasing after a pheasant, said Keith Houghton, who along with his wife, Debra, own the ranch, which has been in Keith’s family for five generations. He is an alumnus of Kansas State University in animal science, but had a career as a commercial airline pilot, returning to the ranch often to help his dad and brothers in the family’s commercial Simmental operation.

“My grandfather paid the mortgage with hogs. My dad thought the only good hog was a dead hog. We ran about 130 performance-tested Simmental bulls off the place for about 30 years,” Houghton said.

“Honestly, it only has the capacity to maintain about 350 cows and replacement heifers on it. I ended up purchasing the ranch out of my father’s estate. This was no gimme deal. Nothing came overnight. We stuck our heads way, way, out and started the hunting operation in the middle of the farm crisis.”

Houghton called those times a “painfully slow time” to develop a different enterprise within the ranch.

“We developed a lot of CRP filter strips and edge buffers to enhance those pastures. Like any ranch, you’re dependent on the weather,” Houghton said. “We went from the best coverage to the worse with the adverse winter last year. We had to do some work to make it right last year. This year, we’re bloody early, but we’ve got moisture in the soil.”

Developing the ranch for overnight guests took years, as did the marketing effort.

“Prior to onset of the internet, it was extremely difficult to get your name out and set yourself apart,” Houghton said. “Persistence went beyond good judgment. We now have about 2,400 hunter days per year on an annual basis.”

With a staff providing comfortable accommodations, classic country cooking, knowledgeable guides, and good hunting dogs, the ranch offers hunters almost everything they could want from an upland game bird hunting experience.

“We like to say a weekend with us is like a weekend hunting at grandpa’s farm,” Houghton says with a laugh, “if grandpa didn’t have no stinking pro shop. We have a pro shop.”

For another type of experience, there’s the Prairie Lavender Farm, near Bennington.

The operation is small, a little over 2 acres, yet blooms with purple every summer. Owner Mike Neustrom last year raised over 17,000 pounds of lavender and other herbs last year.

Neustrom, who’s been raising the purple product for 18 years, works to develop skin care and other products from the herbs he raises.

“We make our own products simply because this isn’t exactly a crop you can take to the local elevator,” Neustrom said.

Neustrom is a true devotee of lavender, helping founded the United States Lavender Growers Association and serving seven years on its board of directors; the last three years as president, stepping down in March 2018.

“I had retired after 21 years in the Navy and then time managing an agency for people with developmental disabilities in Salina to our little farm near Bennington. A number of years ago my wife and I were visiting my sister who lives in Austin, Texas, and she dragged my wife and me to a conference,” Neustrom said. “It was the Southwest Lavender Conference. My wife was always after me to find a hobby as something to do that I could do close to home.

“I thought, ‘How hard could this be?’ I later found it was pretty hard work.”

He actually thought it was easy for a few years, until Neustrom’s field encountered winter kill last year, which wiped out half of last year’s crop.

“The crop broke dormancy following a stretch of warm temperatures, then as quick as that came, we had temperatures below zero. We’re at about the same latitude as southern France. It’s a drought tolerant plant. If they can grow it there, we can grow it here. We’ve been lucky over the years,” Neustrom said.

While the farm is open for tours during the growing season, and the gift shop open to purchase products throughout the year, the farm is known for two events.

First up, there’s an herb sale each first Saturday in May featuring parsley, rosemary, thyme, and other items including heritage tomatoes as well as other early season vegetables.

The third Saturday in June is the farm’s annual Lavender Festival and includes tours, demonstrations, U-pick events, food and wine tastings and kid activities.

Yes, Neustrom’s farm is a relatively short drive from the K-State campus. Yes, he grows a product that’s purple.

Is he a Catbacker? No, sorry.

“It can be confusing for some people,” Neustrom said, “since we’re KU fans. OK, we’ll cheer for both, except when they play KU.”

It’s through this diversity that the beauty of a state, along with new farm enterprises, can be found.

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Larry Dreiling can be reached at 785-628-1117 or [email protected].