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Farm Central in America’s Heartland

Farms have never been so fun.

Many farmers and ranchers in the U.S. have turned to agritourism as a way to educate visitors about modern and historical agricultural practices, as well as entertain them. From dairy farms to reindeer and cattle ranches, historical farms and apiaries, there’s an agricultural adventure for everyone in America’s Heartland.

Fair Oaks Farms

Fair Oaks, Indiana

Fair Oaks Farms is an agritourist’s dream. The 30,000-acre farm offers group visitors the chance to take one of three different agricultural tours: the dairy adventure, the pig adventure or the crop adventure. Most groups choose the dairy adventure because “everybody loves milk and ice cream,” said Sharon St. Myers, adventure sales manager for Fair Oaks Farms.

The dairy tour takes groups on a 45-minute bus tour of the farm, driving them through the free-stall barns and the nursery. Visitors also have a chance to watch 72 cows being milked at once on the farm’s high-tech milking carousel.

Watching the cows taking their turn on the carousel is like watching “a bunch of old ladies kibitzing,” St. Myers said. “All these girls on the rotary; you see them chewing their cud, which means they are happy. It is their happy place.”

While there, visitors learn about the milking process and how the milk is pasteurized and put on tanker trucks as soon as it is taken from the dairy cows. Visitors also get to see calves being born in the birthing barn and view a 3D/4D movie that flies visitors over Fair Oaks Farms.

Each tour takes an hour and a half to 2 hours. If groups are pressed for time, they can just take the 45-minute bus tour.

The pig adventure is similar to the dairy adventure in that groups can walk through three different sections of the pig barn, viewing boars, pregnant mothers and piglets.

“It is interesting,” St. Myers said. “Every time I go do it, I find something new. That’s what is fascinating.”

Groups can top off their visit by tasting cheese or ice cream made from milk produced on the farm, or they can sign up for a hot buffet or a sack lunch as part of their tour.

Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch

Rantoul, Illinois

Mark and Julie Hardy never intended for their ranch to become a popular agritourism destination. When they flew to Alaska 24 years ago to purchase a herd of reindeer, their main goal was to market their Christmas tree farm.

Instead, the reindeer became a major tourist attraction, with more than 45,000 people coming each year to meet them, said Julie Hardy.

“In a zoo, you don’t get to get close to them,” she said. On the ranch’s reindeer tour, guests get to hear the story of how the reindeer herd was shipped to Illinois from Alaska in large shipping crates on Delta Airlines. They can even get a kiss from a reindeer by placing a graham cracker in its mouth.

Julie said she and her husband didn’t know what they were getting into when they first got the idea of raising reindeer.

“I grew up with a cat, and my hubby used to milk cows, so he had some livestock experience,” she said. “But reindeer are not cows. We had to figure out their health care and feed program. They are unique in their own species, so we had to get that right.”

Tour groups, depending on their budget, can book a meal in the ranch’s Wild West saloon, which specializes in chuck-wagon barbecue served on tin plates, with bandannas as napkins. Groups can also take guided tours of the farm and the reindeer.

The ranch is phasing out its Christmas trees.

“We’re getting too old for it. The kids are too old for it,” Julie said. Instead, the ranch brings in fresh cut trees from Michigan to sell for the holidays. The ranch is open to the public from September through December, but groups are welcome to visit year-round. Many come in on mystery tours.

Dickinson Cattle Company

Barnesville, Ohio

The Dickinson family started its agritourism business 21 years ago.

“We found that a lot of people enjoy seeing cattle and how they’re raised,” said Darol Dickinson, general manager of the ranch. “They see what they eat and see cows and calves in the pastures.”

Groups are taken by ranch bus on a 75-minute narrated tour of the property that not only details the history of the different breeds of cattle raised there, but also talks about the ranch itself, which sits on reclaimed mine land.

Isaac Parker, the infamous “hanging judge” of the Old West, was raised on the ranch in the early 1800s, so visitors hear tales about his childhood there.

The ranch can take groups as large as 80 people at a time. The groups are split between two buses to give people plenty of room.

Dickinson Cattle Company raises Texas longhorns, African Watusi and Dutch Buelingo cattle. At any given time, the ranch has 1,600 head of cattle situated on a little under 5,000 acres in the Appalachian foothills.

The bus tours take visitors around the ranch’s 28 lakes, where visitors can see cattle up close and even feed them through the bus windows.

The ranch gets close to 5,000 agritourists a year. It is right off Interstate 70, so it catches many of the tour groups traveling from the East Coast to Branson, Missouri, or visitors going to the Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

Groups can also stay for a catered meal, enjoying the ranch’s Texas longhorn beef for lunch.

Living History Farms

Urbandale, Iowa

Living History Farms is an outdoor history museum that educates, entertains and connects people of all ages to Midwestern rural life experiences.

The property has three working farm sites from different eras of Iowa history, including a 1700 Ioway farm that “honors the native Indians who would have been living in this area before pioneer settlers arrived,” said Amy Day, director of marketing and communications for the museum. It also features an 1850 pioneer farm, where the farmers use scythes and other 1850s farm implements to do their work, and a 1900 horse-powered farm. An 1875 town site called Walnut Hill has myriad buildings to tour, including a church, a blacksmith shop, a bank, a millinery, a schoolhouse and an immigrant farmhouse.

Groups are welcome, but there is no guided tour of the property; instead, the museum offers a suggested walking route. Historical interpreters dressed in period-appropriate clothing are stationed throughout the museum to answer any questions.

“They don’t have a script or a specific set of narratives they follow,” she said. “They do have basic information they share. If you are in the blacksmith shop, they know the tools they are working with, but what they share each time is not always the same.”

Interstate 80 runs through the property, so there is a tractor cart that takes visitors under the highway from the town site to the farms.

“As you go through the tunnel, you are going back 300 years in history,” Day said. “It is a very unique spot.”

If groups are concerned about the amount of walking involved, she suggested they restrict their visit to the town side of the property. They can then take the tractor cart over to visit the 1900 farmhouse, which eliminates a lot of the walking to the other two farms.

Hillside Honey Apiary

Easton, Kansas

Hillside Honey Apiary is a family-run honey farm. The owners, Ty and Shelley Martin, bought the apiary six years ago.

Ty, the resident beekeeper, was retiring from the military and wanted a new challenge. The previous owner of Hillside Honey, who was also a veteran, encouraged him to raise bees because it was a great way to control his emotions, said Shelley Martin. When that friend passed away, his wife mentioned she was dissolving the business. The Martins “talked it over and prayed about it,” she said. In the end, they decided to buy what was left of the honey business, which included 50 hives and equipment.

To house their beekeeping operation, the Martins purchased an old rural high school north of Leavenworth. It was an appropriate piece of land, Shelley said, because one of the main goals of Hillside Honey is to educate people about the importance of bees.

Large groups are welcome to take the one-and-a-half-hour tour. Hillside Honey has about 80 hives and a pollinator garden. The tour begins with a 30-minute introduction to bees, beekeeping equipment, pollination and the products that come out of a beehive. Then everyone is suited up in full protective gear so they can get close to the bees in the hives.

They hunt for worker bees, baby bees and even the queen bee in different hives. Some lucky guests are even able to hold on to a frame full of bees and honey because they are protected by their suits.

If the group is larger than 50, the Martins will break them into smaller groups, rotating between Ty’s talk about bees, touring the hives and learning how to make beeswax candles. Visitors also get a chance to sample honey and other products made from Hillside Honey’s hives.