As the old adage says, you can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been. Wisconsin’s agritourism industry is a testament to that fact, as visitors flock to working farms and agricultural historic sites to learn more about this important part of the state’s heritage.
“History buffs are now heading out to the local farms to learn more about historical barns and buildings who may have never before considered this a form of history,” says Kelly Murray, executive director of Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association. “They are looking at it as an educational opportunity for themselves and their children, but they are also contributing to the state’s tourism economy.”
Stonefield Historic Site in Cassville – home of Nelson Dewey, the first governor of Wisconsin – offers visitors a look at agriculture in Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century and explores the mutual relationship between farmers and the neighboring village. The site’s extensive collection of agricultural artifacts includes the nation’s very first rubber-tired tractor, as well as the oldest tractor in the country. Grant County, where the historic site is located, provides funding to ensure every school child can visit Stonefield for free.
“Families can visit Stonefield and talk about growing up on the farm, but also pass that along to their children and grandchildren. I think sharing those stories while they’re visiting is important,” says Allen Schroeder, Stonefield site director. “And I think it’s important to preserve this material and buildings for future generations. Our past gives us a lot of lessons for today, as well as into the future. We need places like Stonefield.”
Tammy Potaracke, operations manager of Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center in Coon Valley, agrees.
“People just don’t have the firsthand, up-close interaction they used to have with farms. Lives have become distracted and busy, with visual overload. When you step onto a farm or museum site and breathe the air, smell the grass – it can be a stress reliever,” she says.
While not a working farm, Norskedalen comes alive during many of its events and programs with demonstrations, live animals and hands-on discovery interactions for the more than 14,000 people including some 3,000 school children who visit each year. The nature and heritage center offers a historical look at agriculture with assets that include notable buildings complete with domestic and agricultural artifacts, such as implements, tools, and equipment; demonstrations of these tools; and guided tours to show how pioneers lived.
Learning From the Land
Murray says Wisconsin’s agritourism industry has also been fueled by consumer curiosity.
“People in the cities are continuing to want to explore where their food comes from and how farms take care of animals,” she says.
This growing consumer interest has given many smaller farms an additional source of revenue through admission fees, for example, as well as a new market through which to promote their products.
“Some of the successes of our members can be seen in the continuation of growth expansion on their farms by building additional buildings, expanding on their activities or adding additional manufacturing to their farms,” Murray says.
The ginseng production industry is another part of the state’s agricultural history that’s just now getting into the agritourism side of the sector. In Wisconsin, some 185 producers harvest 720,000 pounds of ginseng annually. In 2017, producers will host the inaugural North American Wisconsin Ginseng Festival to promote the Wisconsin-grown herb.
“We cannot do enough to help educate and promote the Wisconsin agriculture industry. This is so vital to the future of our respective industries,” says Jeff Lewis, general manager of the Ginseng and Herb Co-op. “We hope to accomplish more name recognition with the festival. We already know that we are unique in the ginseng industry, and have a small, high-end niche market. We hope to attract a large international audience that will come to Wisconsin for the very first time and see what this industry is all about.”