America’s Heartland is rich with farms, ranches and vineyards that are eager to educate groups about where their food comes from. Here are five agritourism destinations from Iowa to Ohio that will keep group visitors of all ages engaged.
The Winery at Versailles
Mike and Carol Williams own three wineries, including the Winery at Versailles in Ohio. The operation was founded 20 years ago in an old barn the family reclaimed and then added onto over the years. It now has two patios, one enclosed, and two seating areas upstairs. The property has two acres of vineyards growing Steuben and Chambourcin varietals, enough to produce one wine out of the winery’s current list of 40 wines.
Groups visiting the winery can take a walking tour of the vineyard, visiting the press deck, barrel room and tank room and learning about the entire wine-making process. If groups don’t have a lot of time, the tour can be tailored to their needs with a quick visit to the wine-making operation and a wine tasting.
Groups under 20 people can go through the tour at the same time. Otherwise, larger groups will be broken up to visit different parts of the operation separately. Travel planners can also add a guided two-hour wine tasting session with 10 pre-selected wines, cheese, sausage and crackers. The experience highlights where different varietals of grapes are grown, as well as what makes certain wines dry, semi-dry, dessert or port wines. By telling visitors what to expect from each wine, they are more likely to be adventurous in the wines they try in the future, said Carlena Sneed, events coordinator at the winery.
Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch
Mark Hardy’s ranch in Rantoul, Illinois, started off as a Christmas tree farm with 5,000 trees. After Mark met and married Julie, who had a background in sales, the couple decided they needed to do more than just “sell Christmas trees out of a garage,” Mark said. They put up a gift shop and bought two reindeer. The original idea was to travel around to other Christmas tree farms and sell reindeer as an attraction.
They realized that reindeer were a big draw to their tree operation, so they now maintain a herd of between 18 and 20 animals that groups can visit with, pet and hand-feed treats.
“They are just beautiful animals,” Mark said. “People fall in love with them when they see them. A lot of people didn’t believe they were real and are amazed to see they are real.”
Close to Christmas, the ranch sees up to 1,000 visitors a day. The Hardys open up their banquet hall, which looks like a 1930s saloon, offering guests a dinner show and chuckwagon meal of barbecue brisket, cornbread and scalloped potatoes served on tin plates with a spoon and bandanna napkin.
Hayrides are offered every 15 to 20 minutes, taking groups of up to 35 people on a tour of the ranch’s 60 acres. There are two sets of reindeer situated on the ranch so they aren’t overwhelmed by too many people at a time, and groups can spend 20 to 30 minutes learning about and interacting with the reindeer. In the autumn, groups can wander through a large corn maze.
Junction City, Kansas
Hildebrand Farms Dairy is a family dairy operation in Junction City, Kansas, that actually processes and bottles its own milk on the farm. The farm, which was founded in 1930, has been open to visitors since 2008 and has 140-150 cows. Tours begin at the calf barn, where all of the calves come after they are born and have had an opportunity to spend time with their mothers. Calves spend about two months in the barn before graduating to the middle school and high school barn, where they spend about two years enjoying pasture life before they enter the herd as milking cows.
The dairy cows make their home in a free stall barn where they have unlimited feed and water at all times, as well as access to the pasture. The barn is where groups learn more about the cows, how much time they rest, eat and what their basic needs are. Groups then head to the milking barn, which is in the oldest part of the farm. The barn has a double-sided milking parlor with six slots on each side. Then the group follows the milk lines as they travel overhead to the onsite processing plant, where they learn the difference between raw and pasteurized milk and get to watch it being bottled.
The farm store has samples of flavored milks made from the dairy farm’s denizens, including chocolate, strawberry and root beer flavors, and they also can buy an ice cream cone.
Cinnamon Ridge Farms
Cinnamon Ridge Farms is a fifth-generation, family-owned dairy farm in Donahue, Iowa. Originally founded in 1855, the farm and robotic dairy sits on 4,000 acres. The family raises 800 cows, 10,000 pigs and chickens for eggs, and also grows corn and soybeans.
Group visitors to the farm will learn all about the family’s farming practices.
“We want our guests to learn about the wonder of agriculture,” said John Maxwell, owner of the dairy with his wife, Joan.
The Maxwells began giving tours of their establishment in the late 1990s. It has been a slow climb entering this side of the business, he said, but by 2019, the farm was seeing about 7,000 visitors, all by the busload, with 2,000 of them visiting from other countries.
Tours begin at the Maxwells’ house, where visitors watch a video presentation. They then get to go out and see a planter demonstration before visiting the robotic barn, where they learn all about cows and robots. The Maxwells make cheese on the farm, and visitors get to see the process and sample different varieties. For an additional fee, groups can add wine and cheese to their tour. The wine is made locally by John’s cousin, and groups get to sample different varieties of cheddar and gouda.
At the end of the tour, groups can visit the store and purchase wine and cheese. Each tour takes between two and two-and-a-half hours.
Hinchley’s Dairy Farm
Hinchley’s Dairy Farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin, is a 2,500-acre farm run by a mother-and-daughter team with four robots and 240 cows. Originally founded in 1958, the farm has been hosting group tours for the past 25 years, from April through October.
Group visitors get a hands-on look at what farming entails on this two-hour adventure. Guests can hop on one of the farm’s two wagons to see the farm’s fields up close, learning about corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. They also get to visit the grain silos, bunker silos and grain bins.
Everything is grown and sold nearby to cut down on trucking and middlemen costs.
“Our margins are thin,” said Tina Hinchley, owner/operator of the dairy farm. We have to make sure we are doing everything as economically sustainable as possible.”
Visitors can try their hand at milking a cow and then see how a modern dairy farm uses robots to do most of the milking The farm also has goats, sheep, pheasants, chickens, turkeys and pigs.