Air Date: Week of March 24, 2000
Nancy Cohen reports from Massachusetts on the rise of Entertainment Farming, also known as Agro-Tourism. Enterprising farmers, looking for a way to supplement their income, are turning their farms into tourist destinations for city folk yearning for an authentic rural experience.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. All across America, family farmers are being squeezed by high production costs and low producer prices. So, small farms that want to keep working their land have to be more and more creative in finding ways to make ends meet. In the latest twist on the rural economy, some farms are selling not just food but a whole farm experience to folks from the cities and suburbs. Reporter Nancy Cohen recently visited two family farms in Massachusetts that are making what's known as agro-tourism a year-round enterprise. Her report begins among the sugar maples of North Hadley, in the rural Connecticut River valley.
COHEN: Twenty-four-year-old Joe Boisvert, who farms with his brother John in North Hadley, is out collecting the first sap of the season.
JOE BOISVERT: Yeah, I don't know what's in these buckets. See, not much. See, that's hardly running because they didn't freeze last night. Yep. See, not much at all.
COHEN: But even though the sap is slow, business at the North Hadley sugar shack is brisk.
WOMAN: It's going to be a wait, five, 20 minutes to half an hour for a big group.
COHEN: The Boisverts not only make syrup, they serve it on top of pancakes, waffles, and French toast, to hundreds of people every weekend. They opened their sugar shack and farm stand four years ago. Since then they've built two additions and doubled their seating for their maple breakfasts, which they serve only during maple syrup season. People waiting to be seated can watch the sap boil in the evaporator room.
(Boiling, a door swings shut)
COHEN: Twenty-six-year-old John Boisvert is stoking the wood fire. He demonstrates how the old-time sugar makers could tell when the syrup was done, by the way it drips.
JOHN BOISVERT: It scoops them up. See how fast it's running off. When it gets ready, it'll start hanging right on there, almost like glue. See how it's kind of getting thick there?
COHEN: Massachusetts farmers like the Boisverts don't have the large fields and long growing season that Midwestern and Western farmers enjoy, but what they do have they're taking advantage of: proximity to a hungry market -- consumers who live in cities and suburbs, who crave the authenticity of a farm experience. Tending the coffee pot is Joe and John's mother, Martha, who grew up on this farm.
M. BOISVERT: My father would not understand entertainment farming. He would not understand that people come to the farm and they want to see how things are made. They want to see how things are done. He would not understand cooking breakfast to try to push your maple syrup. He thought that there was going to be a market for all his vegetables forever. That is simply not the case any more.
COHEN: When the weather gets warmer, the Boisverts hope their maple syrup customers will stop by for fresh asparagus, strawberries, corn, and squash. They'll hold a corn festival and sell fresh strawberry shortcake to draw people in. Throughout Massachusetts, agricultural tourism is helping many farms survive, and it's not only young farmers who see a future in it.
D. LEOB: Well, one thing about milking cows is, you always have a lot of time to think.
COHEN: Sixty-year-old Don Leob has had a lot of time to think about ways to improve his farm. He and his wife Judy milked cows on their Berkshire County farm in Hancock for three decades. But a few years ago, when milk prices were low, they thought there might be a better way to make a living.
D. LEOB: We were not satisfied with what the future looked like. And at the same time, my son was ready to come back to the farm and he didn't want to milk cows anyway, no matter what the price was.
COHEN: So in 1996 the Leobs sold off their herd: 120 milkers, 250 cows in all. They sank a quarter of a million dollars into converting their farm into something better suited for people. Judy Leob.
J. LEOB: The room we're in now is called the calf barn. There were baby cows in here from ages birth to about three-and-a-half months. Now it's a cafe where we serve pancakes and syrup.
COHEN: This former calf barn sports checkered curtains, black and white cow tablecloths, and a floor stenciled with pictures of maple leaves. Outside, one of the farm workers answers the questions of curious customers.
MAN: I wanted to know how tapping the trees affects their growth.
WORKER: It really doesn't bother the health of the tree...
COHEN: Education is a big part of this new farm operation. In the summer time, Don Leob runs a program just for kids. He calls it Uncle Don's Farmyard. For about five dollars each, children can feed farm animals, jump on hay bales, ride around on pedal-operated tractors, and learn to milk a cow -- a wooden cow, that is, complete with a tail and rubber teats.
D. LEOB: They all have teats here to be able to milk. They're hooked up in the summer time to water, to a steady flow of water. So you could milk them by hand, or it's just like milking a cow, or it feels like milking a cow. Or you can put the machines on and milk the cows with the machine.
COHEN: The Leobs still do what they call real farm work. They grow 250 acres of crops, 125 acres of hay, and board 100 head of cattle. They sell Christmas trees, pumpkins and strawberries direct to the public. But how does it all compare to making milk?
D. LEOB: This is our fourth year now that the cows have been gone, and no, we're not making as good a living as we were milking cows. But it looks a lot more futuristic. The cows, we knew how far we could go. We didn't see an opportunity to improve that any further than where we were. This leaves more opportunity for more growth.
COHEN: When you drive up to the Leobs' red barn, there are a group of cow faces looking out the window. But their eyes don't blink and their heads don't turn. Although it may seem like a sad day when real cows are replaced by wooden ones, the people coming to visit don't seem to mind. After all, the coffee's good and the syrup is sweet. And getting near a working farm is becoming a rare enough experience that people are willing to pay for it. For Living on Earth, I'm Nancy Cohen in Hancock, Massachusetts.
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