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Published October 17, 2009, 09:47 PM

N.D. agritourism just getting started

A tourist attraction can look a lot like a dairy farm, a grape vineyard or a cattle ranch. Ordinary farm life isn’t so ordinary to many. Yet, North Dakota is just getting started when it comes to agritourism — the business of combining agriculture with tourism.

By: Jill Schramm, Minot Daily News

MINOT — A tourist attraction can look a lot like a dairy farm, a grape vineyard or a cattle ranch.

Ordinary farm life isn’t so ordinary to many. Yet, North Dakota is just getting started when it comes to agritourism — the business of combining agriculture with tourism.

“It’s just the perfect merger of our state’s two largest industries,” said Sara Otte Coleman, director of the North Dakota Tourism Division.

Agritourism businesses listed with the Tourism Division include an outdoors camp for women in Bottineau coordinated by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, a grape vineyard tour at Galesburg, farm volunteer work through Farm Rescue, hiking from Carson to Raleigh in southwestern North Dakota, a dairy farm tour in Edgeley and food preservation and rural living experiences in Langdon.

Fees for visitors can range from $5 to $70 for shorter tours as much as $120 for daylong events. For such events as Farm Rescue, donations are requested.

Learning-based vacations

The North Dakota State University Langdon Research Extension Center has promoted its learning-based vacation packages through the tourism division for about five years.

“The first three years, we really didn’t have any feedback. People weren’t quite aware that there were these learning-based vacations,” said Randy Mehlhoff, the center director. “But in the last couple of years, we have had tours for groups.”

In August, the center provided a tour for two families from the Boston area.

Mehlhoff said the urbanization of American has distanced more people from the farm. People don’t know where pasta comes from or how crops are grown. A tour of the center offers an education.

“It’s opened their eyes,” Mehlhoff said. “It’s been a good experience because of the fact that there’s so much of a lack of knowledge about what’s entailed in farming.”

Area residents also are taking advantage of the tours, and sometimes bring their nonfarm family members and friends. Tour groups have ranged from day care centers to senior citizen groups. One of the attractions for residents at the Langdon, N.D., center is the centennial landscape project that features 100 years of horticulture research.

Even local people who take the tour come away saying that they learned things they didn’t know, Mehlhoff said.

The Extension centers are public entities that are open to visitors any time. Tours are free.

Sideline business

Wooly Girls Wool Mill at Hannah, N.D., northwest of Langdon turned visitor traffic into agritourism.

Janet Jacobson, who operates the mill with Diane Schill, said giving tours was becoming a burden on the small company until she and Schill began working with tourism officials to turn the tours into a sideline business.

“People are willing to pay for this kind of experience,” Jacobson said. “We have a harder time charging than customers have paying.”

Visitors often are interested in buying products offered at the mill as well.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a major part of our business, but this year we have done eight to 10 tours,” Jacobson said. “They are looking for something different to do. People leave with a whole different idea of what goes into the process of making clothing or just handling fiber.”

Some tour groups are fairly local, but Wooly Girls gets people from around the U.S. who find them on the state’s tourism Web site. Because of Hannah’s location off the beaten path, agritourism always will be limited for the mill, Jacobson said.

“I don’t ever see this ever becoming a major part of the business. If it were the major part of the business, it would lose its attractiveness. Then we would be a tourist attraction, not an operating mill,” she said.

Maria Effertz-Hanson, coordinator at Black Butte Adventures in Velva, N.D., also said that while giving tours of the farm and ranch operation is fun, it’s best in moderation.

“If we put more time into promoting it, we would probably see a lot more,” Effertz-Hanson said. “But it takes time to promote and market, and how do you balance all that out? There’s only so much that we want to do, also.

“But it’s a nice sideline and it’s an opportunity, in our case, for us to educate people from outside our area of the importance of agriculture and the importance of people who live and work in North Dakota,” she said.

European visitors

This year, the Jerry Effertz farm and ranch had visitors from Holland who came specifically to find out how people lived in North Dakota.

“We really do focus our learning-based tours on the farm on production agriculture and cattle, and the importance of the farmers and ranchers being very good stewards of the land,” Effertz-Hanson said.

There’s room for more farms and ranches to get into agritourism because each one offers a different experience, she said. Her father, a third-generation farmer, has his stories, and other farmers have theirs, she said.

“Those stories are what makes the potential for ag and nature tourism possible in North Dakota. The key is we are still very authentic,” Effertz-Hanson said. “We are not Disneyland and we will never be Disneyland. But we are something that’s authentic to people.”

The tourism division provides promotion assistance and educational workshops to people interested in agritourism. The division recently hired a new employee who will have agritourism as a primary focus.

North Dakota’s neighboring states are ahead of North Dakota when it comes to agritourism. Minnesota has about 300 entities classified as agritourism, while Wyoming has about 150 guest ranches. Otte Coleman believes North Dakota can catch up quickly. A simple afternoon tour can be a good place to start, she said.