In the heart of the Great Plains, where agriculture thrives and fields stretch as far as the eye can see, states proudly showcase their prized crop, worthy of weekends brimming with lively festivities.
These homespun celebrations pay homage to the rich agricultural heritage of the region, featuring parades, carnival rides, tractor pulls, a variety of contests, and of course, there is no shortage of delicious food.
Texas—The Peach Capital
Texas is home to an abundance of festivals that reflect the culture of the state and the importance of agriculture, said Amanda Cripe, a senior account executive with NJF, the public relations firm for Travel Texas.
For instance, she said, each September, the city of Grapevine holds Grapefest, which also happens to host the largest consumer-judged wine competition in the nation.
That includes Weatherford, Texas, where every second weekend in July, the town comes alive with a vibrant display of all things peach.
For over three decades, the Parker County Peach Festival has been a beacon of the area’s large peach industry, said Tammy Gazzola, president of the Weatherford Chamber of Commerce. Peach and fruit production goes back to the early 20th century. By 1910, there were nearly 144,000 fruit trees, most of them peaches. In 1991, the Texas Legislature named Weatherford the official Peach Capital of Texas.
What sets the Parker County Peach Festival apart is its unwavering commitment to promoting local produce.
This year’s festival will feature over 200 vendors and showcases an assortment of art, crafts, food, and activities. In 2019, over 60,000 people flocked to the event.
Of course, there is plenty to eat, Gazzola added.
"There is a huge variety of peachy treats including peach cobbler, peach ice cream, peach julep, peach funnel cakes, peach cheesecake, peach salsa, peach gelato, and of course, sweet juicy Parker County Peaches," she said.
If you go:
Parker County Peach Festival
When: July 8
Location: Weatherford, Texas
On the web: www.parkercountypeachfestival.org
Kansas sunflowers take center stage
Situated in central Kansas on land owned by the Gaeddert family for over 75 years, tThe Kansas Sunflower Festival has become a late-summer destination for sunflower enthusiasts. The festival offers a scenic backdrop for photos plus walking trails through 16 acres of sunflowers. Each visitor can also take home their own sunflower cutting.
The Gaeddert family’s agritourism journey began in 1999 with a corn maze followed by the addition of a pumpkin patch. In 2018 they introduced sunflowers to the farm. The response exceeded their wildest expectations, prompting a shift from the maze and patch to the Sunflower Festival in 2019.
"What makes it unique is that the opportunity to freely walk through someone’s private sunflower field just doesn’t exist in very many places," said Tonya Martisko, who helped start her family’s event in 1999. "It is such a beautiful, peaceful place to be. Everyone comes out of there just happy and smiling. It’s so much fun for us to watch."
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The Kansas Sunflower Festival now draws visitors in from states away—some even making the journey solely to experience the blooms.
If you go:
What: Kansas Sunflower Festival
Where: 13209 E. 82nd Ave, Buhler, KS 67522
Best time to visit: If customers are wanting to avoid crowds, they suggest coming on a weekday.
On the web: kansasmaze.com/events
Nebraska—Autumn at the apple orchard
For over 55 years, Nebraska City has embraced its rich apple-growing heritage with the annual AppleJack Festival, drawing more than 50,000 visitors to the annual fall event.
The festival traces its roots back nearly 100 years when Morton Orchard, now part of Arbor Day Farm, stood as one of the largest commercial orchards in the Midwest. Meanwhile, visitors would come to see the blooms each spring and then return in the fall for fresh apples and cider.
In the 1960s, a committee of the Nebraska City Chamber of Commerce envisioned capitalizing on the region’s bountiful harvest and growing tourism. Thus, the AppleJack Festival was born, said Tammy Partsch, tourism and promotions coordinator for Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce.
The celebration spans two weekends, she said. The third weekend of September, known as the "Traditional AppleJack," includes a flea market, vendor fairs, quilt show, water barrel fights, carnival and a parade featuring a marching band competition. The weekend also includes bull riding and a car show.
The fourth weekend is the "Taste of AppleJack." Visitors can indulge in more vendor fairs, participate in a community worship service and take part in the "All Things Apple" recipe contest. A progressive dinner provides a unique culinary experience.
Partsch said the festival gives visitors the opportunity to get outside and experience rural Nebraska.
"It’s a tradition that has been a part of their family lore for a generation," she said. "They remember coming here with their parents, and they either want to give that same memory to their own children or they want to recapture that feeling of freedom and lightness they used to have."
If you go:
When: Sept. 15 to 24, 2023
Where: Nebraska City
On the web: nebraskacity.com/festival/apple-jack-festival
"We have a lot of great ag festivals in Missouri," said Katie Blake with the Missouri Division of Tourism.
Those unique experiences include Missouri’s wine country. The state has a rich winemaking tradition with roots dating back to the 1850s. However, the onset of Prohibition in the 1920s dealt a severe blow to this thriving sector, bringing it to an abrupt halt. However, the wine industry experienced a remarkable revival in the 1960s, and today, it stands poised for an even brighter future.
Missouri’s wine industry, that dates back to the 1850s, hosts several festivals through late summer and autumn. Many of the more than 130 wineries have grouped together to form unique wine trails, according to the department.
For instance, Blake said, Augusta hosts the Augusta Harvest Festival, paying tribute to its vineyards and the art of winemaking. Visitors are invited to explore the town, especially with a wine passport in hand. There are wine tastings in a historic wine cellar, live music, hayrides, a 5K, a pie contest, and a gourmet picnic basket dinner for two with a bottle of wine included.
During the first four weekends in October, Hermann, Missouri, goes all out to invite people to experience the sights and sounds of autumn during its month-long Oktoberfest. The event is a celebration of the town’s German heritage, the autumn season, good food, wine, beer, and music. You can take a tour of the region’s wineries, too.
Learn more about Missouri’s wine tours: bit.ly/43CRCeC.
Oklahoma—Celebrating all things watermelon
Rush Springs owes its name to the springs located at the headwaters of Rush Creek. This geographical advantage has made it an ideal location for the cultivation of watermelons, which has given rise to a longstanding tradition—the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival.
Since its inception in 1940, when local residents gathered in the park to enjoy complimentary watermelon, the festival has grown into a massive celebration. An annual event since 1948, it attracts more than 20,000 visitors each year and serves upwards of 50,000 pounds of juicy, ripe melon to festival-goers.
Charla Gilleland, one of the festival organizers, said the day includes a seed-spitting contest, an arts and craft fair featuring over 100 vendors, carnival rides, live entertainment, stage shows, on-site food vendors, and a classic automobile show. Visitors can sample locally grown melons in Black Diamond, Royal Sweet, and other varieties.
If you go:
When: Aug. 12
Where: Rush Springs, Oklahoma
On the web: www.facebook.com/rushspringswatermelonfestival
Amy Bickel can be reached at [email protected].