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Big farm, big fun

Agriculture.com Staff 08/07/2007 @ 8:27am

The Henrekins weren't planning to open their Deer Grove, Illinois, farm to visitors when they bought a few elk in 1999. They merely wanted to enjoy the animals.

But from the moment the elk arrived, visitors did too. "People were coming by three or four nights a week to see the elk," says Jim Henrekin. The family was happy to explain the herd's life cycle and give tours of the habitat. It was a nice change of pace from the 4,000 acres of row crops the Henrekins farm with partner Mike Cady.

When 800 people from a 175-mile radius showed up for an open house in 2002, the Henrekins saw an opportunity to turn their hobby into an agricultural tourism business. They consulted with local business groups and networked with other agritourism farmers. Two advantages jumped out for them: There were no other tourist farms in Illinois with elk, and they were 90 miles west of Chicago and 45 miles east of the Quad Cities.

The first step was creating a business plan for Sandy Pine Elk Farm. Dad Jim, son J.C. and his wife, LaMonica, and son Matt and his wife, Melissa, formed an S-corporation with each of them as equal shareholders. They hired a business consultant to help develop a budget and write up a business plan.

The plan identified the need to create a central spot for selling tickets, concessions, and retail items. The Henrekins built an 1,800-square-foot store with the family doing most of the construction. Jim financed the $80,000 building and rents it to the corporation. They took out loans for inventory and equipment.

The store, which opened in 2004, sells frozen elk meat, homemade food, a variety of gifts, and furniture made from Sandy Pine's elk antlers.

Along with the store and tours of the elk habitat, Sandy Pine offers activities from July through December, including corn and soybean mazes, a pumpkin patch, a straw climbing mountain, pedal tractor races, horse-drawn wagon rides, bonfires by Indian tepees, fall festivals, school outings, bus trips, outdoor competitions, and corporate retreats.

In the winter, Christmas trees are sold. "It has just mushroomed," says Jim.

The Henrekins weren't planning to open their Deer Grove, Illinois, farm to visitors when they bought a few elk in 1999. They merely wanted to enjoy the animals.

Jim, J.C., and Matt work together to manage the elk herd, keep up the grounds, and give tours. LaMonica and Melissa organize special events, arrange for group tours, and manage the store, including doing the bookkeeping and marketing, selecting and stocking inventory, and even baking the pies and making the fudge.

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