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Ohio Farmers Get Boost With "Agri-Tainment"

Farmers continually find themselves captive to fluctuating commodities prices.  Some smaller farmers are looking for ways to supplement their incomes and they’ve found it through what’s known as “Agri-tourismâ€? or “Agri-Tainment.â€?   It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday at Freeman’s Farm in southern Delaware County.  While hundreds of people take hay rides or photograph their children amid huge piles of pumpkins, Bill and Lois Freeman work side-by-side next to a steaming cast-iron kettle that’s been cooking over an open fire.   “We’re canning apple butter right now,â€? says Lois Freeman. “We’ve been cooking it down; takes about five hours usually.  Apple sauce and apple cider concentrate; added cinnamon in it and then canning it.â€?   That apple butter will be sold at the Freeman’s Country Market – a store that’s also packed with customers -- located several hundred yards away.     Past generations of the Freeman family had farmed this area.  But Alum Creek State Park and Interstate 71 ate up most of their farmland. With only 30 acres left, the Freemans took a different direction.   “Everything we do is agriculture but we don’t farm ourselves,â€? says Bill Freeman. “It’s entertainment farming. It’s more of an experience that people come out for.â€?    The Freemans are in the “Agri-tainmentâ€? or “Agri-tourismâ€? business.  And the popularity is evident.  Acres of cars, minivans and SUVs are packed onto their property.   We’ve kept it really simple and basic over the years; we haven’t changed much,â€? says Bill Freeman.  “I think people like the simplicity of it. It’s kind of a little bit slower paced and I think that’s what people are looking for.â€?    The Freeman’s loss of farmland is not unique.  Columbus and other Ohio cities are spreading out.  Rob Leeds is a Delaware County extension agent who’s also a farmer.   “Back in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, we farmed traditional row crops about 2,000 acres.  Back then that was a pretty good operation.  And then as encroachment – as people moved out -- we lost some ground to housing and we lost some ground to other farmers taking it up and so we had to decide what we wanted to do.  Do we want to go out and get more ground or do we want to diversify and we chose to diversify,â€? says Leeds.    Leeds says he knows a lot of dairy farmers who have turned to agri-tourism as prices fluctuate.  It is, he says, a way for farmers to increase their income, and stay on the farm.     “I’m sure for some that they made a conscious decision to go in this direction strictly for financial reasons,â€? says Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau.   “Farm families; they’re business people and they see an opportunity and they are going to try to fill that need that consumers have,â€? Cornely says.   The need is simple. Urban dwellers want to reconnect with the occupation of their ancestors.  Eric Barrett is an OSU Extension agent in Washington County.   “Those folks want to understand the farm.  They want something to do on the weekends besides go watch a movie with their children or go bowling.  And that farm experience – especially for grandparents – really takes the grandkids back to ‘This is what I used to do as a kid,’ and ‘This is where milk actually comes from – it doesn’t get made at the grocery store, it gets made at the farm.’   In Union County, Randy Rausch, his wife Jayne and their two children have worked hard transforming their farm.   “We tried to diversify the farm.  Up until five or six years ago we milked cows and we kind of knew that the way things were going that the kids probably wouldn’t want to do that the rest of their lives so we thought that might be a way to get them involved in the family operation,â€? Rausch says.   And in the fall it’s quite an operation.  The Rausch’s welcome thousands of admission-paying visitors to see farm animals, eat freshly-popped kettle corn and experience the most popular attraction: they get a chance to wander through a nearly ten-acre corn maze.   Agri-tainment is growing around the country.  But the Farm Bureau’s Joe Cornely says Ohio’s farmers have a unique opportunity.   “While we have close to 14 million acres of farmland we have a lot of large and medium size cities scattered throughout the state as well,â€? Cornely says. “And of course if you want to run a successful business you’ve got to have access to customers.  And because agriculture butts up against a lot of metropolitan and medium size cities it’s an advantage to try this type of enterprise here in Ohio.â€?   The OSU Extension Service helps educate farmers in ways that they can diversify their incomes.  Extension agent Eric Barrett says this sort of direct marketing is good for local economies.   “Anytime we can take anything that we’re producing within a county border and recycle those dollars locally that’s going to help our local economies especially with the challenges that we’re facing right now after the recession and to really help farmers push that local sale; keep people in their communities and hopefully keep some of the job aspects of agriculture in the county,â€? Barrett says.