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America’s heartland: Agritourism’s harvest

Courtesy Seed Saver Exchange

If it lands on your plate, it started at a farm. And for many of the things that we eat and drink every day, that farm is likely somewhere in America’s heartland.

The Midwest has earned the nickname “the breadbasket of America” for its centuries-long tradition of family farming. Although large commercial farms have taken over the mass production of most of the food we consume, small farms still play a role in Midwestern agriculture, growing heirloom plants and using organic techniques in their dairy production.

Many small farms have also found a new niche in agritourism, opening their properties to visitors. For the farmers, this provides an important additional revenue stream; for visitors, it offers a look into the historic charm and modern practices of agriculture and a taste of some of the freshest foods they’ll ever eat.

Consider taking a farm tour in one of these areas on your next group trip.

Seed Savers Exchange

Decorah, Iowa
At Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, farmers work not to produce food for mass consumption but to produce historic varieties of plants that have been overlooked by modern farming.

“We’re an 880-acre farm not far from the Minnesota border,” said John Torgrimson, the farm’s acting executive director. “Seed Savers Exchange is in its 35th year. We’re a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and saving a variety of seeds, vegetables, plants and fruits.”

The group has collected seeds from more than 25,000 varieties of historic plants and makes about 630 varieties of the seeds available through catalog and online sales. They have more than 6,000 types of tomato seeds on file, and this year they planted 76 different kinds of lettuce.

During a tour of the farm, groups can see the display gardens; the preservation gardens, where historic varieties are tested; and the trial gardens, where items from the catalog are grown. There is also a historic orchard, which has about 800 kinds of pre-1900 apples and 200 varieties of grapes.
The organization also helps to preserve some heirloom livestock breeds.

“We feel strongly that our farm should be a public display of best practices,” Torgrimson said. “So we have a herd of about 105 ancient rare cattle that came from Britain. We also have three kinds of heritage chickens, some Chinese geese and some Narragansett turkeys.”

Wausau, Wis.
You may know ginseng as an exotic root from the East believed to have numerous health benefits. And although it’s often associated with Asian cultures, ginseng is huge in Wausau and surrounding Marathon County, where some 95 percent of the ginseng in the United States is cultivated.

At Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprises, groups can tour the farm and learn more about the fascinating root.

“They give a little bit of the history of ginseng and the different uses of it,” said Regan Pourchot, sales manager at the Wausau/Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s an educational tour, along with field demonstrations. You see the ginseng plants as they’re growing in the fields at different stages, and you can look at the variety of different products that ginseng is used in.”

Groups interested in farm life in the area can also visit Van Der Geest Dairy, a large-scale, modernized dairy farm. During a tour, visitors see how the company uses state-of-the art machinery to milk hundreds of cows daily and get a distinctive whiff of what life at the dairy is like.

“There’s a catwalk plank where you can walk out and view the cattle and the milking process,” Pourchot said. “You get the real odors of the cow farm.”

Traders Point Creamery
Zionsville, Ind.
Straddling the border between Zionsville and Indianapolis, Traders Point Creamery has won a following throughout Indiana for its organic yogurt, cheese, ice cream and other tasty products.

“We’re a small, family-owned organic dairy farm,” said Gail Alden, director of marketing at the creamery. “They started out in 1997 with about 28 cows, and now they milk a couple hundred cows. The cows have a very good life at Traders Point Creamery — they are 100 percent grass fed, and they’re allowed to have their calves with them in the pasture.”

During a tour, groups can see the four historic 19th-century barns on the property that house the milking operation, event space and loft restaurant. They can also see some of the production areas, where the crew takes the milk from the cows and uses it to make the dairy products that are sold on site.

In the farm’s loft restaurant, groups can see the cheese cave where cheeses age after being molded or order a smoothie or a sundae at the dairy bar. The restaurant also serves gourmet meals created from the products of other area farms.

“It’s a wonderful organic restaurant, serving food from local farms seven days a week,” Alden said. “It’s the true farm-to-table experience.”

Once a week, the creamery hosts a farmer’s market featuring products from around the region. It also puts on large events for Oktoberfest and Christmas.

Blue Rock Station

Philo, Ohio
It’s all about green living at Blue Rock Station, a Philo, Ohio, farm where husband and wife Jay and Annie Warmke have created a way of life built around recycling and sustainability.

“Blue Rock Station is a working farm, and our goal is to be sustainable in our practices,” Annie Warmke said. “So that means the way we feed our animals, reusing everything possible and not buying new things. We invite people to come for some moments in our lives — whatever we’re doing, people can be a part of that.”

The Warmkes raise goats, llamas and chickens on their farm and grow a variety of fruits and vegetables to feed themselves and their animals. What they don’t grow themselves, they trade with other farms to acquire.

One of the primary attractions of visiting the farm is seeing the numerous buildings the Warmkes have constructed on the site. Jay and Annie live in a home made from repurposed steel and old tires; barns on the property were built with scrap lumber from old structures, and the greenhouse is composed of empty glass bottles. Interested guests can stay overnight in a pair of straw-bale cottages and use “privies” with natural composting toilets.

Groups often enjoy exploring the farm on llama treks.

“It brings in a lot of people who haven’t thought that much about sustainability or ecology,” Warmke said. “We teach people how to take care of llamas and what’s involved in feeding and grooming them. They take them on a walk in the woods and then come back for a ‘high tea,’ Blue Rock Station style.”

For more America’s heartland:

History thrives
Cuisine that makes it good to be hungry

Get hip to the urban heartland
Conner Prairie
Elkhart County’s Amish haystack
Agritourism on the cusp of suburbia
Tasting the Old World

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.