What began as a hobby for Wetumpka farmers Patty and Joe Lambrecht has grown into a flourishing agritourism destination for Alabama consumers.
“We started the farm as a hobby with our stone burr gristmill,” says Joe. “It really just sparked a lot of interest in people. They didn’t know where grits came from or how they were made.”
The Lambrechts saw an opportunity in this interest to take it to the next level and teach people more about agriculture. The couple began the part-time operation in 1998 and moved to full time in 2004 after experiencing great success. Since then, they’ve added two greenhouses with hydroponic lettuce, half an acre of Asian persimmons, 1.5 acres of strawberries, 2.5 acres of blueberries and grow seasonal produce including tomatoes, onions and fingerling potatoes. They also raise chickens for fresh eggs, as well as goats and honeybees.
Lambrecht says their diversified offerings and activities, including U-pick blueberries and strawberries, really draw a crowd and help the business, too.
“Someone may come to the farm to pick blueberries, but then they’re going to come into the store and buy something,” he says.
He adds that it’s rewarding to be able to talk to customers and explain exactly how the product they’re buying was grown.
“When you sell someone a head of lettuce and can tell them exactly how it’s been grown and who has touched it, it has a lot more value than a bagged head of lettuce they buy at a grocery store.”
This commitment caring for their land and paying close attention to how they grow crops earned the Lambrechts the title of NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) Small Farmer of the Year for 2015.
“Farmers have always been sustainable,” Lambrecht says. “If you don’t take care of your land, you don’t have a job.”
The Lambrechts have installed different components to the farm to help with sustainability including underground spring systems and seasonal high tunnels. They also use plasticulture to help with water conservation, plus cover crops and rotation crops. Since they’ve been in business, the couple has hosted more than 175 tours and classes, teaching consumers about soil management, environmental conservation and how to be good stewards of the land.
“It’s a business,” Lambrecht adds. “You have to protect what you do.”
Brian Jones, public relations director at the Alabama Tourism Department says agritourism has grown as part of the farm-to-table movement that is sweeping the country. Food is a huge component of why people come to Alabama, and as they gain popularity in the culinary world, visitors are more curious about where the food comes from.
“People are so much more aware of where their food comes from, and they’re interested in seeing those places,” Jones says.
The department created a website to highlight the culinary movement in the state, which Jones notes is a major pull for Alabama.
“There’s a space dedicated solely to farmers markets and information on the Alabama food trail, which highlights restaurants, wineries and other unique food-related places to stop,” he says.
He adds that a lot of Alabama’s major events are focused on food, including the annual peanut and peach festivals.
Public Opinion Matters
Joe Lambrecht can attest to Jones’ statements, since he bases new crops off of what the public wants.
“It’s gonna sound funny, but we have been heavily influenced by the local food movement. We sell to high-end restaurants, so food TV and Facebook really influence what we decide to grow next,” he says. “If people want kale, you grow kale.”
Tom Chestnutt, tourism specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System thinks agritourism has really picked up over the last decade thanks to the curiosity of the younger generation.
“My generation grew up on the farm,” Chestnutt, who’s in his 60’s, says. “The newer generation wants to learn about the farm and how it used to be when we were growing up.”
Farmers get the benefit of additional income while offering authentic trips where visitors can learn something, along with having fun.
“It’s also really great for rural communities to get people to come out to their area,” Chestnutt adds. “It’s a growing sector of tourism that I don’t see slowing down anytime soon.”