From corn mazes to u-pick apple orchards to haunted barns, agritourism is thriving in rural Michigan, thanks, in part, to renewed consumer interest in the outdoors and local foods during the pandemic.
Michigan has long been at the forefront of agritourism – described as a type of commercial enterprise where farming and tourism meet – thanks to a cornucopia of farms with u-pick orchards and fields of berries. It’s a trend gaining momentum across the country and expanding with farmers adding new family-oriented activities.
Wendy Wieland, an Innovation Counselor with the Michigan State University Product Center, expects the 2022 Agriculture Census will show huge growth in agritourism, compared to the last survey in 2017. That survey showed Michigan’s agritourism revenue at $21 million — without including wineries and breweries.
As the number two state (behind California) in the U.S. for the number of agricultural crops (100-plus), Michigan is ripe for even more creative agritourism.
“Diversity is a great strategy for sustainability,” says Wieland, who works with producers in five agritourism areas: hospitality, direct sales, entertainment, recreation and education. There are opportunities to combine them, such as “edutainment,” hosting a hayride with a lesson on pollination, for example.
Many farmers start with direct food sales to earn more than they would from commodity prices. Traditionally, that often leads to the development of seasonal entertainment such as corn mazes and pumpkin patches and on-farm markets.
“One of the newest trends is farm stays and glamping. Also, entertainment including harvest and music festivals and concerts,” she adds.
There are numerous examples of successful agritourism ventures in both the lower and upper peninsulas. Writer Dee Goerge shares examples of three successful farm tourism operations.
Choice Farm Market,
Edutainment and direct sales are Todd and Lorretta Benjamin’s goals.
corn maze with an MSU/UM rivalry theme kicks off the Webberville farm family’s new agritourism venture this fall. It’s the latest addition to their business, Choice Farm Market, with plans to relocate their on-farm store to a new 4,000-square-foot building on the corner of M-52 and Holt Road, where the maze is located.
The rivalry maze at Choice Farm Market in Webberville.
Todd Benjamin, a sixth-generation farmer, farms 2,000 acres (corn, soybeans, wheat and hay) with his nephew and has been involved with value-added businesses since 2006, when he started growing and delivering corn for people with corn-burning stoves (TLC Corn). In 2019, the Benjamins, who have about 170 head of Holstein steers, started selling their beef retail as Benjamin Beef.
“The pandemic helped us and we were going through 1,500 pounds of beef every four weeks,” Loretta Benjamin says.
They added other Michigan products as they recognized the demand for quality local products. In dealing with customers Loretta Benjamin recognized the need to educate consumers, who often don’t understand the connection between grazing cows and steak.
With their daughter-in-law Cassity’s interest in a farm enterprise, the Benjamins invested in the new building with a commercial kitchen and the maze. They hired a company to design their maze, planted gourds and plots of sunflowers, baled mini bales and connected with local farmers to provide pumpkins and other goods to sell.
“It’s going to be more than a maze and pumpkin patch,” Loretta says. “It’s an outdoor activity for families. Our vision is to educate — and not just kids.”
The MSU/UM maze includes QR codes for people to learn about Michigan farming as well as trivia about the universities. A smaller maze features 10 signs about farm animals. More will be added next year — including animals, interactive displays and a culvert slide, for example. The store (to open soon) will feature more Michigan-grown products and grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches along with frozen entrees that can be baked at home.
Jacob’s Farm’s approach is to pack as much as possible into the May-October tourism season.
The farm, located on M-72, just a few miles west of Traverse City, has attracted visitors to its corn mazes and orchards since 2008. With an 1892 centennial barn remodeled into a restaurant and bar and a new event center, the 40-acre farm (with apple and peach trees and raspberries and strawberries) has ample space for many activities simultaneously.
The interior of the restaurant, part of the renovated barn at Jacob's Farm.
“There’s a little bit of fun everywhere, no matter what age. We attract a wide demographic with so many attractions,” says Jeremy Smith, general manager. “The vibe, the atmosphere, everything pulls together.”
Urban tourists from cities such as Detroit and Chicago have always been attracted to the maze — this year with an Alice and Wonderland theme, complete with a map and treasure hunt. Many come to pick berries and tree fruits grown on the farm. Now they can also enjoy pizza and other entrees with locally made wines and beers.
“It’s become a go-to place for local families and visiting tourists,” Smith says, noting Traverse City is just three miles away. Locals stop in for a meal, bring their kids out for the maze or hayride, buy pumpkins or just sit on the grass to drink wine and listen to live music.
The two-year-old event center is a popular wedding venue with near capacity bookings. Jacob’s Farm also hosts client appreciation dinners, retirement parties, birthday’s graduations and other life celebrations.
“We have a great team of managers and owners that bring their experience,” Smith says.
Jacob’s Farm owners Mike and Laverna Witkop added agritourism to the family farm, and they recently partnered with hospitality experts
before adding the restaurant and event center, which keep workers busy throughout the season. But late September and October remain the busiest with the maze, warm cider and autumn colors enticing visitors for a fall outing. The 10 acres of parking gets pretty full, Smith says.
Getzloff Corn Maze,
Mike and Darcy Getzloff are good examples of “build it and they will come.”
Their Getzloff Corn Maze in Wilson, about 15 miles west of Escanaba in the U.P. proves that being near a large population area is not always necessary.
“What we found out is that families make it a tradition. They can spend several hours here as a family,” Darcy Getzloff says. “We have people coming from Marquette and Iron Mountain.”
The couple first added a pumpkin patch to boost farm income on their third-generation, beef and 280-acre crop farm. Then, with friends’ encouragement they created their first corn maze in 2009. Getzloff plans the design and they cut the maze themselves. Often there is a theme, but this year she made the seven-acre maze more challenging.
The Getzloffs pack many activities into the weekends they are open in September through October — hayrides, animals, a corn sandbox, barrel train, slide, pumpkins and cornstalks to buy and a concession stand that gets bigger every year. Plus, they schedule school and other groups during the week New this year are mini cows and a haunted barn Halloween weekend.
“We try to be very family friendly for all — from kids through adults,” she says, noting adults enjoy fall colors on the hayride. “It seems like since Covid people enjoy doing more things outdoors.”
Dee Goerge grew up in Fowler, Michigan, and lives in Minnesota, where she writes for trade and agriculture publications, including Farm Show and The Farmer.