Jul 16, 2015
Agritourism helps Ohio farm survive

Road construction is going on right in front of Ramseyer Farms, and will probably still be going on during the busy agritourism season this fall. The thousands of customers who visit will have a harder time getting in and out. But Dennis and Karen Ramseyer, who own the Wooster, Ohio, farm, weren’t sweating it too much. It’s just another challenge for a farm that’s survived many.

The Ramseyers hosted the Ohio Produce Growers & Marketers Association in June, and explained how things work on their farm, which has two distinct parts: field crops (including potatoes) and on-farm entertainment.

The two parts link in certain areas. Kids learn about potatoes when they visit, and enjoy the potato chips made fresh on the farm. According to the Ramseyers, that’s one of the many agritourism activities that helped their farm survive.

Family history

The Ramseyer family has been farming in Ohio for six generations. For a long time the main focus was dairy, but after a devastating fire in 1932 the focus moved to potatoes. Potato sales kept the farm afloat for decades, but in 1992, after three disastrous crops within four years, its biggest customer decided to stop buying Ohio potatoes. That was “quite a blow,” Dennis said.

The Ramseyers had to cut back on their potato acreage, while other farms in the area got out of the crop altogether. Today, Ramseyer Farms is the only potato grower left in the Wooster area – and probably in all of northeast Ohio. They now sell the majority of their potatoes to chip companies outside the state. Of the farm’s 700 total acres, 185 are currently in potatoes, 140 in wheat, 200 in corn, 100 in soybeans and 25 in pumpkins, Dennis said.

After hosting a Sunday school class in 1999, the Ramseyers realized how much fun people could have on their farm, and how few of them had farm connections anymore. That’s when they decided on-farm entertainment was in their future, Dennis said.

Of course, they didn’t fully realize what they were getting into, Karen said. When they started in 2000, she figured agritourism would keep her busy in the fall, but it turned out to be a “13-month-a-year” job. She works double time in September and October.

“That first fall, I thought, ‘What have I done?'” she said.

It didn’t take them long to realize they were going to need help. Fortunately, they have “wonderful” employees now and their children are more involved, bringing new insights and energy to the family business. They even have a son-in-law who helps design their mazes, Karen said.

They made additions and improvements to their agritourism activities every year. There are now corn mazes, hayrides, corn slides, a petting zoo, pedal carts and a u-pick pumpkin patch, among other things. A couple of years ago they built the Hide & Slide Hill, with tunnels kids can slide down or crawl through. They built a large barn in 2007, which gave them more room for activities, sales and office space.

When making improvements they try to stick to a farm atmosphere, not a carnival atmosphere, Dennis said. They start setting up for the fall season in the middle of July.

They have up to 50 employees working on busy weekends, when thousands of visitors show up. As much as possible, they try to make sure their employees are prepared for the rush, Karen said.

“If you invite the public on your farm, they will do things you don’t expect.”

But despite all the challenges of agritourism, Karen loves watching families make lasting memories.

School tours

Ramseyer’s school tours have slowed a little in the last couple of years, due to school budget cuts, but the farm still hosts about 8,500 students a season, Karen told the OPGMA visitors.

Sara Anderson, a Ramseyer staff member, explained how the farm organizes its school tours. Time slots fill up fast, so they encourage schools to sign up early.

On the day of the tour, they encourage the groups to show up 10 to 15 minutes early, so they can get everybody checked in and going on time. Every staff member has a copy of the schedule and a cellphone or walkie-talkie, and is familiar with the plan for the day – but even if the plan looks good on paper, anyone who has hosted a school tour knows you have to stay nimble. When the buses show up late, or don’t show up at all, you need a Plan B, a Plan C – sometimes even a Plan D, Anderson said.

Last fall, for example, two school tours were scheduled to arrive on the same day, one at 9:30 a.m. and the other at 11 a.m. The 9:30 group showed up later than expected and the 11 o’clock group showed up earlier than expected – pretty much at the same time. The staff quickly huddled and created a backup plan – about the best possible plan they could have come up with for hosting 290 guests simultaneously, she said.

“Schools come late or early all the time,” Anderson said. “They forget things; they have more or less people than you thought they would have. You have to be flexible.”

Communication is very important, and so is staying positive.

“If we get stressed and frustrated, teachers get stressed and frustrated,” she said. “That ruins the whole trip. Stay calm. Be willing to change things up.”

If a school group shows up late, the farm has found ways to condense certain activities. The hayride can take a shorter route, for example, or speakers can cut out parts of their talk. If you have to shorten the tour, “tactfully and gently” let the group know, Anderson said.

But no matter what, Ramseyer employees meet each bus with a smile.

“We want them to know we’re excited they’re here, not that we’re stressed and don’t even know what plan we’re on,” she said.

A staff person almost always accompanies each group, guiding them through the tour. The teachers appreciate that – which is important. If the farm is thinking about making any changes to its school tours, it runs them by the teachers first, Anderson said.

Matt Milkovich

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