Farms look to agritourism to supplement income
By MITCH LIES
MONMOUTH, Ore. -- Aaron and Sarah Kennel this month are opening the family grass seed farm to hundreds of school children and families.
The couple will spend nearly every waking hour over the next few weeks conducting hay rides, selling hot cider and keeping the pumpkin patch stocked.
"We're pretty much married to the festival for the whole month," Sarah Kennel said.
"But it's fun to see people from the community come out and have fun, and be able to make a little money," Aaron Kennel said.
The Airlie Hills Harvest Festival is one of dozens of Halloween-themed festivals conducted across Oregon each October.
Some, like the E.Z. Orchards HarvestFest in Salem, which started in 1996, have been in operation many years. Others, like the Wooden Shoe Pumpkin Fest, which started last year near Woodburn, are relatively new.
The Airlie Hills Festival, just off Highway 99W between Monmouth and Corvallis, has been in operation seven years. Each year the Kennels have added activities and the festival has grown in popularity and size.
"It's grown quite a bit every year," Aaron Kennel said.
The festival this year features a 5-acre corn maze, hundreds of pumpkins grown on 4 acres, a half-acre hay maze, a hay fort and other structures.
"We used 150 tons of straw this year," Aaron Kennel said, "which can be quite an investment in a year like this when straw prices are so high."
Fall harvest festivals are part of a growing trend of farmers taking advantage of agritourism and direct marketing opportunities, said Brent Searle, assistant to the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
"I think growers are looking at all kinds of alternatives to support their farming habit," Searle said. "They are doing kind of a resources assessment, asking how can I use my property in different ways."
In all, 13,000 of Oregon's 38,000 farms do something in addition to growing crops and livestock to generate farm income, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. The average income from alternative enterprises is $19,000 a year.
"By all evidences that we can see, the whole direct-to-consumer experience, whether it is a farm experience or farmers' market or farmstand situation, is a growing phenomena," Searle said.
"If you have a lean year, (farm-direct marketing) probably makes the difference between profitability and being in the red," said Shawn Cleave, of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
"It is also a really good way to connect the public with Oregon's agricultural heritage," Cleave said.
"We see the desire for families to get out to the farm and experience memories that can't be found in cities or suburbs," said Barb Iverson, of the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm Pumpkin Fest. "And we have the experience and facilities to produce first class family-oriented events. Fall gives us the harvest season and Halloween to build around."
While operating harvest festivals can be time-consuming, farmers say setting up the events is the hardest part.
The Kennels start working on their festival weeks in advance.
"The setup has to be the hardest part," Aaron Kennel said. "Once it's all set up, we just maintain it through the month and watch people have fun."