Farms welcoming tourists now make up a $1 billion industry of corn mazes and pumpkin patches
For many people, fall is marked by taking trips to the pumpkin patch, getting lost in a corn maze or catching a hay ride. These seasonal activities are part of agricultural tourism, and it's a booming industry.
It’s a crisp fall afternoon and Loren Liebscher is towing a wagon filled with families with his tractor and heading towards his pumpkin patch — something he’s done every autumn for 21 years.
About 18,000 visitors come to P Bar Farms in Hydro, Oklahoma each year. They come to find the perfect pumpkin and to explore a 10-acre corn maze, one of the state’s first.
"We started with just three things: we had a pumpkin patch, a corn maze and a petting zoo,” Liebscher said. “And then things began to change.”
Since then, he’s added activities like hay rides, jumping pillows, a farm slide, rock mining for children and haunted nights in the corn maze.
Liebscher’s farm is a part of the booming agritourism industry. The agritourism sector — everything from corn mazes to pick-your-own pumpkin patches and apple orchards — has grown to a nearly $1 billion industry, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Liebscher said he jumped head first into the agritourism industry after he grew tired and stressed from raising cattle and growing wheat. He got the idea to start a corn maze when he read an article in an agricultural magazine about a farmer making big profits off his expansive corn maze.
“One question [the farmer] got asked all the time was, ‘Doesn't it bother you that people go and mess up your corn?’” Liebscher chuckled. “He said, ‘Okay, the corn in the maze is worth $1,000,’ and he said, ‘I just grossed $100,000 doing agri-tainment. Do you think I really care about the corn?’”
As the number of U.S. farms continue to decline, Kendra Meyer, an agritourism specialist for Iowa State University’s Extension Office, said the number of people looking to experience where their food comes from has soared.
“More and more people are moving to urban areas, and so people are removed just one step further from the farm life,” Meyer said. “So getting out on the farm, being able to see that apple they picked and where it came from, rather than just going and picking it up in the grocery store, is a fun and exciting thing.”
Meyer said the farmers she often works with show interest in agritourism because it serves as a way for them to make a side income. But she said it also gives farmers the opportunity to share their story and how they produce their crops with visitors.
“When you share that with someone coming on your farm, it gives you a connection that you feel immediately with that farmer,” Meyer said. “At least for me, it makes me feel good about buying my produce there because it's someone you trust, it’s someone you know.”
Building up an agritourism business takes time
Near Marcus, Iowa, Geralyn and Alan Hoefling have been welcoming visitors to their pumpkin patch for 26 years.
Alan, a commodity broker and soybean farmer, and Geralyn, a retired preschool teacher, started with a small patch so Geralyn’s preschool students could learn how pumpkins grow. Today, Hoefling’s Pumpkin Patch and Corn Maze has grown into a side business that offers people a vast variety of pumpkins and gourds to choose from.
“Our passion for starting the pumpkin patch was to have a place for families to go,” Geralyn said. “We are a pumpkin patch. I want people to go out and pick, and that's just part of the fun.”
But the couple said they’ve never really thought of themselves as an agritourism attraction. Despite the months it takes to get everything set up for the pumpkin patch, they’ve never charged admission to visit their farm, only for the pumpkins people pick off the vine.
“We want [families] to know they are able to enjoy everything without the high cost of entering,” Geralyn said. “But I always tell people, if you want a big entertainment place you might want to look elsewhere, but if you want a pumpkin patch, this is the place to come.”
Getting started in agritourism isn’t an easy job. It can take years for farmers to establish their business, according to Iowa State’s Meyer.
“Agritourism isn’t something you can just jump fully into and have a full-time income,” Meyer said. “Agritourism is a way to add that extra piece to your farm. It allows [farmers] to build piece by piece and create a business that is sustainable after many years of work.”
Tara and Chris Peters have owned Pete’s Pumpkin Patch in Rolla, Missouri, for 12 years. Tara said neither she nor her husband come from an agricultural background, but they learned how to build up their business by learning from other farmers.
“When you're starting out, that's who you rely on,” Peters said. “People that have done it before, and then you come share what works for you and what doesn't work for you. And then you grow from there.”
Peters has been a member of the Missouri Farm Bureau’s Agritourism Committee since 2015. She said being a part of the committee has allowed her to tour agritourism attractions all across Missouri and help advise them on how to make their businesses more successful.
Challenges of agritourism
Even in the agritourism business the growing conditions matter.
This summer’s drought killed the Peters’ chances of growing corn for a corn maze at Pete’s Pumpkin Patch in Missouri. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, it made it more expensive for Liebscher to grow his corn, and his usual $1,500 bill to irrigate the corn shot up to $5,000 this year.
Opening their farms to the public also comes with some legal risks for farmers. While many farmers have been running agritourism businesses for years, there are no federal laws that define agritourism. Meyer said it’s important for states to regulate the growing industry.
“More laws allows for more understanding of what [agritourism] really is and how we can help those producers be the best they can be and help protect them,” she said.
States like Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma have had liability protections for agriculture tourism farms for over 5 years, and Iowa passed an agritourism liability act in 2021. Illinois remains among the dozen of states that have no laws related to agritourism liability.
Liebscher said dealing with the normal issues that come with farming, keeping up with agritourism regulations, and maintaining a visitor-friendly farm year-round can make it challenging to stay on top of everything.
After his wife experienced health issues last year, Liebscher decided it was time to put the farm up for sale and simply enjoy life together.
“You learn through that experience what’s important,” he said, “and it’s not run a corn maze until you’re exhausted.”
After more than two decades, he said what he'll miss the most is meeting with visitors and seeing families enjoy their time at his farm. He hopes the next owner of his corn maze will put as much passion into the business as he did.
“It'll be hard for me, because it's been such a huge part of my life, and I've spent a lot of time and effort in agritourism,” Liebscher said. “But it's time to move on to something different."
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM
Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.