Agritourism: How small farms in metro Detroit are finding solutions

Small farmers within the metro Detroit area have it rough right now. They’ve seen costs increase sharply in the past year because of rising fuel and fertilizer prices, largely due to the war in Ukraine. They took another blow this winter and last fall when over six inches of rain flooded fields, drowning some sections of crops. Crops that could be saved were left to dry, which resulted in feed for a spiking population of wild deer. Flooding affected not only grain produce and grain but also hay, which feeds livestock and is now at a premium price. In 2021, farm loss in Michigan accounted for 7% of the nation’s total

One of the responses proposed to help small farmers, who supply much of the local produce sold in southeast Michigan, is agritourism. Farmers are encouraged to open their property and allow people to visit to buy products from the farm’s store, cut down Christmas trees, U-pick a variety of fruits and vegetables, or to pet and feed the livestock at a farm zoo. 

Crooked Creek Farm Dairy in Romeo. Photo: Supplied.

In metro Detroit, many small farms have explored agritourism, the marriage of tourism and agriculture, the second and third largest industries in Michigan. There are more than 800 agritourism businesses across the state, working farms open to visitors, and agritourism income in Michigan jumped from $USD 20 million in 2017 to $56 million in 2022. In the MSU Southeast Michigan Small Farm Needs Assessment 2018-2019, 18% of the farms participated in agritourism. The pandemic helped spur growth when the lockdowns pushed people to do outdoor activities and when clients chose small, local businesses out of empathy. 

Agritourism has also created more revenue to flow through smaller towns as well, according to research from the College of Natural Resources. With visiting customers looking for organic and fresh produce, there is an increase in interest in how food is grown and the desire to purchase it locally. This additional stream of cash is welcome to farmers who deal with many challenges year to year such as unusual weather that could wipe out most of a crop.  

Greg and Dory Hill. Photo supplied. One farm that has embraced agritourism is Crooked Creek Farm Dairy in Romeo, run by Greg and Dory Hill. The couple opened a store in 1981 to sell healthy, non-GMO food including meat, homemade ice cream, and hormone-free milk. The farm also has a petting zoo and a runway where small planes fly in to purchase groceries or an ice cream cone. Skydivers even dropped from the clouds last year to enjoy frozen treats. 

“Back in 1981, I came home from my parent’s home and told my husband that my mom’s store-bought milk tasted weird,” Dory Hill explains “My husband said that is because you are used to fresh milk. He said we could put in a processing plant and make sure people got better milk.”

Getting into agritourism was not without its challenges for Crooked Creek. It took a half year to secure a loan, build the store, and get equipment to outfit it. The couple faced numerous rules and rule changes by inspectors which resulted in costly expenses. Dory Hill says that anyone who wishes to go into the processing business today is looking at years of waiting to get approvals. But she does not regret implementing agritourism.  

Photo supplied.

“I don’t believe that we would still be farming without diversifying by processing our milk and selling directly to the people and the retail stores. We have lost so many farmers in the last three years due to no farm programs to speak of. We are one of the few dairy farmers left in Macomb County.” 

Hill enjoys having customers come to the farm and educating the younger generations about how their food is grown. Crooked Creek initially built their business via word of mouth, but with the advent of the internet, the Hills found it useful to market using a website and social media. Dory Hill has found maintaining a presence is time-consuming, but worth it.

Indigo Lavender Farm. Photo: Leslie Cieplechowicz

Indigo Lavender Farm in Imlay City also participates in agritourism and the whole farm is geared toward serving visiting clientele. Tricia and Greg Dennis started the small farm to utilize property located along M-53, thinking that agritourism would be fun and create community interest. After researching several crops, they decided on lavender, where its blooms would be easily visible from the highway and entice people to visit the flowers, the wetlands, and the bees.

Indigo started small with U-pick and used word of mouth to advertise along with pamphlets and radio. From there, their business blossomed and now the farm hosts a variety of events, from Brunch in Bloom to Date Night to providing a backdrop for special events such as weddings. The farm dove into workshops such as oil distillation and has created a local community for artisans and crafters. Indigo also has a store with everything lavender, from candles to soaps to paintings. 

Photo: Leslie Cieplechowicz

The couple has faced challenges in operating such a large enterprise. Parking and crowd control have been issues and have resulted in costly capital expenditures for signage, fencing, and gates. The farm must also compete with many other venues. 

“We have learned that we must offer a unique story and be very active on social media to keep the interest growing as well as making sure every customer has a great experience every time they visit our store or go out on the farm,” explains Tricia Dennis.

The couple has also learned that staying active within the agritourism community and participating in farming expos, where they meet others with similar concerns, helps. By sharing ideas with other farmers with different crops, they have learned about other resources to help small farms.

Social media has been instrumental in getting customers out to Indigo, though the Dennis’ still use mailers and radio ads. Tricia Dennis enjoys talking to farm visitors and educating them about farming life, finding it very rewarding. 

“In our experience, customers are very interested in having the farm experience and supporting local farms,” Greg Dennis says.

As with many small farmers, the Dennis’ have found the role challenging, with many variables out of their control, but this has not deterred them from continuing their business. They feel that agritourism is a great way to connect a city dweller with the beauty of the countryside. 

“Small farms are increasingly popular as ways for people to get back to nature and return to their roots,” says Tricia Dennis.
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