Agritourism: Farm Fun and Education
Rob and Christy Leeds of Ostrander, Ohio, know a thing or two about teaching kids and adults about agriculture. Both have day jobs as Extension educators with Ohio State University. Christy guides 4-H and youth development programs for Union County, while Rob helps farmers in Delaware County learn about farm management, direct marketing, and conservation. Yet, it’s during the couple’s time off when ag learning is closest to home.
In 1994, Rob and Christy bought an 80-acre farm as a way to reconnect with farm roots and to raise their family in the country. They started with beef cows in a turn-of-the-century barn. They also planted pumpkins and began selling them out front after a bumper crop produced more than they could use.
“We noticed that when people stopped to get their pumpkins, they often asked if they could stay awhile, and if they could go through the barn,” Rob says.
Rob and Christy were surprised that many visitors had limited knowledge about agriculture, so they looked for ways to teach. They filled a sandbox with shelled corn for kids to play in, and they made posters with corn facts. They set up a farrowing display with a sow and piglets.
The idea of starting an agritourism enterprise sprung from interactions with those early pumpkin customers. “We wanted to create a space where people could learn about farming and to have fun while they were here,” Christy says.
New attractions were initially based on what was already at the farm. The Leedses put up a tent filled with straw bales for forts and climbing, and they offered hayrides around their pond. Eventually they replaced the cattle with more kid-friendly goats and built an elaborate goat walk and feeding area. They brought in a pair of donkeys and created a granary to explain grain production and a bee exhibit to explain pollination.
“We keep adding information,” Christy says.
Fun in the Back 40
As the crowds began overflowing the main farmstead, the Leedses expanded their Back 40 Barnyard, an activity area for entertaining kids and adults alike. A single admission fee covers all the Back 40 Barnyard activities, which now include a larger, permanent straw barn; a Pumpkin Jump with two giant orange rubber pillows to test trampoline skills; a 40-foot “mountain” with culvert pipe tunnel slides; racing slides; an assortment of human gerbil wheels made from plastic tubes; mini ziplines; and a track for red and green pedal carts big enough for adults to ride.
“We encourage adults and kids to play together,” says Christy.
Guests can also hop aboard the Banana Bus, a rolling string of yellow barrels pulled by a riding mower, or pick their favorite oinker to win at the pig-racing arena.
In 2005, the Leedses built a 400-foot zipline to send thrill seekers soaring above the farm’s valley meadow. The zipline, which is certified as part of the American Association of Challenge Course Technologies, draws big crowds. “Sometimes you have to wait an hour to ride,” says son Isaac, 22, who attends Ohio State in agricultural systems management and hopes to eventually run the farm.
Beyond serving folks who flock to the farm on weekends during September and October, Leeds Farm also hosts group events by appointment. These include school tours, fund-raisers, weddings, parties, family reunions, and corporate events. Special events have included a harvest festival for families with children with autism, a salute to military families, a tractor show, a pumpkin-carving exhibition, and a witch-theme fund-raiser for breast cancer awareness.
In 2004, the Leedses refurbished their big white barn’s hayloft for serving food and hosting special events such as weddings. A few years later, they added the North Barn as a second lunch spot and activity center during the busy season and a party venue for up to 400 guests from May to August. In addition, there are several smaller pavilions for gatherings.
Most of the pumpkins sold at the farm are grown on a 7-acre field at their farm or another 20-acre patch at Rob’s home farm near Milford Center, Ohio. The Leedses refrain from offering you-pick-it selling because their pumpkin crop is rotated between fields and some are not nearby the farmstead. In addition to traditional jack-o-lantern pumpkins, the Leedses grow blue, white, pie, mini, and fairytale pumpkins and a variety of squash and gourds. Visitors can purchase pumpkins and other produce inside a small shed that serves as the farm store.
Questions frequently pop up about whether or not the pumpkins are raised organically. “Because pumpkins are prone to diseases and damage from pests, it isn’t feasible for us to grow them organically,” says Rob who welcomes the questions. “We explain that farmers always try to minimize inputs because of the expense,” he says. “They scout and spray only when there is an issue.”
Leeds Farm employs a seasonal staff of 60, including retired farmers who operate the hay wagons, longtime employees who run the store, and students.
“We stress customer service and hard work,” says Christy, who plans formal orientation sessions to teach farm basics, safety precautions, and how to run the various activities.
Managing an agritourism farm can sometimes feel like living in a public park, the Leedses admit. “You have to have a passion for farming and telling agriculture’s story, plus working with people,” says Christy.
Although the farm is open to the public only in the fall, there is work all year with crops, livestock, facilities, planning new activities, hiring and training staff, arranging events, and marketing.
Hard work is part of the fun. The Leeds family appreciates living on a farm that gives other families a chance to learn about agriculture while enjoying a fun and memorable outing in the country.