Eastern Iowa farms follow agritourism trend


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Gerarda Keppler wiped some imaginary dust off her mahogany table as she walked around her airy, wooden Barn House.

“I love the spirit of this place,” she said, standing in front of a window that has a view of endless rolling green hills.

Keppler, 56, rents the Barn House out to people who want to visit the country, making her one of many farmers who have added tourism to their agricultural duties recently.

In order to increase their incomes, farmers across the nation and in Iowa have extended their farms by offering such activities as hay rides, corn mazes, tours, and farm stays.

In the past few years, this agritourism has become the largest income source for farms outside of actual farming, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Keppler said she opened up the Barn House to the public on her Epworth, Iowa, property three years ago to allow people to experience the countryside and its beautiful surroundings.

“It allows people to appreciate and have a part of what we had,” she said.

Laurie Haman, the director of communications for the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she has seen a recent increase in the number of agritourism farms.

“[They] educate people about the barns and increase awareness,” she said about agritourism’s increasing popularity.

Keppler and her family lived on the farm for 12 years before opening it up to the public. As of right now, she said, they haven’t achieved a large profit, but after all of the expenses are paid off, she expects it to bring in an extra several thousand dollars a month.

“Hopefully, it will be profitable,” she said.

Although the number of farms with agritourism has decreased since the Agriculture Department began tracking agritourism in 2002, the income from these activities increased 236 percent between 2002 and 2007.

Since 2002, Iowa has lost roughly nine agritourism farms, but the income derived from the remaining farms has more than tripled, the 2007 Agriculture Department study reported.

But Marsha Laux — a program coordinator for the value-added agriculture at Iowa State University Extension — said the study doesn’t take into account other segments that count as agritourism — such as Christmas-tree sales and farmers’ markets, which bring in approximately $18 million.

“[Agritourism] definitely affected [the economy], and it is growing as far as interest goes,” she said.

Groups as small as five and as large as 150 have visited the Barn House, and Keppler said she is starting to see recurring business.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said.

Along with the Barn House duties, which, she said, has increased the amount of maintenance and cleaning, she and her husband also have a vegetable garden and grow corn and hay on 80 acres of their land while caring for cattle and two horses.

Dianna Engelbrecht has turned her farmhouse into a bed and breakfast, greeting all of her customers with a hot plate of freshly baked cookies when they first check into the Farm House.

“You need to be accessible to the public,” she said

Engelbrecht and husband Loren also incorporate agritourism activities into their everyday farm lives. They have owned the Farm House Inn, a bed and breakfast near Fredericksburg, Iowa, for 13 years. They also own a winery, another agritourism activity.

Engelbrecht said she opened up her farm for such activities because she said she thought it would be a great opportunity for people. She said they generate a lot of business, and all kinds of people stay on her farm. The business has been a large source of income for them, she said.

The business has continued to grow every year, even through the downturn in the economy, Engelbrecht said. She ’s seen all types of customers from honeymooning couples to world-traveling piccolo players.

“You never know when you open you e-mail who’s going to be coming,” Engelbrecht said. “It’s always a surprise.”

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