Drive Cattle, Stomp Grapes, Make Cheese: Agritourism gives city folk a taste of farm life

You may have visited a farmers’ market, romped around a pumpkin patch or picked apples at Eckert’s, but how much do you really know about farm life? Numerous growers and producers are just itching to teach city slickers a thing or two about how food makes it from the farm to your fork. If you’ve already adopted “locavore” into your vocabulary, here’s the low-down on how “agritourism” can become this year’s buzzword.

For a 100-percent-hands-on adventure, your best bet is to head to Sycamore Valley Farm Bed and Breakfast in Brunswick, in north central Missouri. Matt and Tina Reichert and their kids can put you to work raising row crops, tending the garden, or helping with the cow and calf grazing operation. You know you want a combine ride, and when planting’s done, drop your overalls, don an apron and git to the kitchen, where Tina Reichert puts up jam, salsa and other canned goods. After you’ve put in a hard day’s work, you’ll fall right to sleep and dream of her homemade bread, asparagus quiche and other breakfast delights you’ll be served come sunup.

If you’re more at home on the range, then saddle up at Bucks and Spurs Guest Ranch in Ava, Mo., to help C and Sonny Huff drive cattle herds to fresh pasture. This Western-style vacation also includes trail riding on 1,000 acres of mountainous wilderness near Mark Twain National Forest, horse-drawn wagon rides and water activities in Big Beaver River. And don’t worry about the chow; Sonny Huff dishes out hearty trail ride breakfasts, chuckwagon dinners and mighty fine steak nights for all her cowboys and buckaroos.

While these unique destinations are open year-round, a few agri-happenings last just a few days but promise lifetime memories. When grapes are ready to harvest, Ed Daugherty, owner of St. Francois Winery in Park Hills, Mo., gladly welcomes extra hands at his annual weekend Harvest Party (usually held around Labor Day – although the grapes decide harvest day, not Daugherty). Wine-making enthusiasts get to pick and stomp while Daugherty cooks up the three square meals a day and even hosts a Saturday night shindig.

Then, just when your tired hands have turned a bruised purple, it will be time to truck down to Lorberg Farms near Cape Girardeau and harvest the milo. John and Ellen Lorberg invite you to join their friends from Gordonville, Mo., stripping, pressing and cooking sorghum cane down into molasses in late September and early October. (If you ask, John Lorberg will give you a bonus wheat-grinding demonstration and you’ll drive home with a sample of stoneground whole-wheat flour.)

Insurance and liability factors prohibit most agribusinesses from permitting the public to participate in the production process. Lucky for us, these businesses schedule tours and open houses to give us a peek (“interpretative experiences” in agritourism parlance) at how they operate. Curious city dwellers can visit Baetje Farms in Bloomsdale to see how one of Missouri’s goat cheese producers makes its artisan farmstead cheeses, or feed calves and milk cows by hand with Leroy Shatto and the staff at Shatto Milk Co. Of course, the best part is tasting creamy-rich root-beer milk, banana milk and other flavored milk beverages bottled at the Osborn, Mo., facility.

Because it’s pretty darned hard for farmers to leave during kidding season or let the crop go to seed so they can head to The Big City to stoke the tourist fire, a few organizations and state agencies are dedicated to promoting agritourism throughout the state. “Tourism is a major industry, and we would like to see some of the tourist dollars be spent in rural areas,” said Elizabeth Barham, leader of the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project, which aims to market Missouri wine and food products using distinct labels of origin based on ecological regions of the state. In 2003, Barham helped to foster cooperation among producers, marketers and community entities in a pilot region in eastern Missouri known as the Mississippi River Hills. The Mississippi River Hills Association works to promote, protect, enhance and market the unique food offerings and venues in the area. Barham is currently working to organize growers and producers in two other areas of the state.

AgriMissouri, a program within the Missouri Department of Agriculture, also works to promote its members whose products are grown, raised or processed in the state. “We list them on the AgriMissouri Web site and in our buyer’s guide,” explained AgriMissouri member services coordinator Sarah Gehring. “This gives them a presence on the Internet, especially if they do not have their own Web site.” According to Gehring, agritourism has become a focus of the state’s tourism industry. “We’re seeing an increased interest both on the producer side and the consumer side,” she noted. “The consumer demand is there, especially from those in the metro area who want a rural experience. The AgriMissouri members are filling that void.”

One of those AgriMissouri members, Rayville Baking Co., recently began offering monthly classes in the spring featuring traditional farmhouse cuisine. Chef Josh Anthony uses local ingredients and heirloom and organic food from Van Till Farms in Rayville to teach hands-on rustic cooking.

“Cultural tourism products are attracting travelers,” stated Lori Simms, communications manager for the Missouri Division of Tourism. “Our agricultural background is very much a part of our heritage. A lot of people want to find out what they don’t know.”

Educating people about food is precisely the aim of another venue set to join the growing list of agri-destinations. Mark your calendar to visit Hermann in late 2009. That’s when the Hermann Creamery at Hermann Farm and Museum, a one-of-a-kind model working farm and living history museum, will open to the public. Developed by the nationally renowned cheese-making expert Neville McNaughton, the creamery will offer classes in making artisan continental European table cheeses. “No one has done artisan cheese in the state as far as I am aware,” commented Jim Dierberg, whose Dierberg Educational Foundation will own and operate the farm. Cream separators, cream cans, skimmers and milking equipment will tell the story of milk collection and the preparation of milk for cheese making, and guests will be able to view the aging tunnels and the products during the aging process.

Probably the most original farm-based educational attraction is R Pizza Farm, an organic pizza demonstration farm located across the river in Dow, Ill. Half an acre of the 50-acre farm is in the shape of a pizza and sectioned into eight wedges. Each wedge represents different pizza ingredients: tomatoes, peppers, herbs, grains, dairy goats, pigs, beef cows and chickens, the latter necessary to create BBQ pizza, a specialty at the R Pizza Farm pizzeria. “Our society is becoming devoid of knowing where food comes from,” commented owner Walter Gregory. “The farm has a unique way of attracting people because people never thought of pizza being ‘alive.’”

Common among all of these agritourist ventures is the strong belief of the owners in preserving our agricultural heritage and an oftentimes simpler, slower pace of life. Eddie LaBoube, owner of the LaBoube Farms Guesthouse near Hermann, explained why families yearn to stay at the centennial homestead on his working cattle farm. “The guesthouse preserves and captures a flash memory of the old farm way of life,” said LaBoube, who recently opened another idyllic country guesthouse a few miles down the road called The Stone Giraffe. Pausing briefly to admire a day-old calf, he said, “This is the good life.”

Be sure to call ahead before trekking on these agri-terrific adventures

Baetje Farms plans to hold an open house later this year at its artisan farmstead goat cheese facility in Bloomsdale, Mo. Pet the goats and see how the facility manufactures its handcrafted Coeur de la Crème, Coeur du Clos and Fleur de la Vallée cheeses. 573.483.9021

Rockinʼ H Ranch in Norwood, Mo., is getting set for its eighth annual Cowboy Gathering. Join in the Memorial Day weekend cattle drive at the 1,000-acre ranch. If you don’t have your own horse, you can still attend the Chuckwagon Dinner Theater on May 24 during the five-day cowboy extravaganza. 417.741.6090

Shatto Milk Co. in Osborn, Mo., will hold a family day on June 21. Take a tour of the dairy and bottling facilities, pet the cows, feed the calves and sample the milk products. 816.930.3862

Rayville Baking Co. offers monthly farmhouse cooking classes. Next sessions are slated for May 17 and June 12. 816.776.2720

Immerse yourself in cowboy life at Bucks and Spurs Guest Ranch located in Ava, Mo., about an hour north of Branson. Summer three- and five-night packages are available. 417.683.2381

R Pizza Farm located just west of Alton in Dow may very well be the only organic pizza farm in the world. Each “slice” of the ½-acre, pizza-shaped farm represents a different pizza ingredient. After the tour, indulge in a slice of hot pizza at the farm’s pizzeria. 618.466.5950

LaBoube Farms Guesthouse near Hermann offers overnight guests a chance to take in the ambiance of a working cattle farm. Stay in February or March and your little ones can see the newborn calves. 573.486.5100

Learn about wine making at St. Francois Winery in Park Hills, Mo. The harvest and grape stomp occur during the annual harvest party held in late August or early September. 573.431.4294

Set to open late next year is the Hermann Farm & Museum, consisting of five distinct learning areas, all contributing to the historic representation of an early German settlement. These areas include: a model vineyard and winery; livestock farm; artisan demonstration sites; including a creamery and artisan cheese-making facility, a German-style performance and event facility; known as the Hofgarten; stables; wagon-building shop and a children’s garden. 573.486.3276

At Walk-About Acres in Columbia, Mo., you’ll learn all about beekeeping as you stand mesmerized by the apiary. Kids also enjoy interacting with many farm animals on this small, family-owned farm. 573.474.8837

Sycamore Valley Farm Bed and Breakfast lets you pitch in on a working farm in Brunswick, Mo. You can get as dirty as you like or stay whistle clean. 660.548.3283

Persimmon Hill Farm in Lampe, near the Missouri-Arkansas border, offers tours of its self-sustaining berry farm and on-farm bakery. Then taste owner Martha Bohner’s signature blueberry muffin, the Thunder Muffin, which Straub’s Markets recently began carrying. 417.779.5443

Lorenae Dairy in Galena, Mo., offers tours of its cheese-making operation. The dairy produces full-cream, all-Jersey and Cheddar cheese curds. 417.357.2873

Opening spring 2009 is the Jefferson Farm and Gardens, a 67-acre demonstration farm located within the 1,500-acre University of Missouri South Farm in Columbia. This educational farm will focus on contemporary agricultural approaches and feature a fruit orchard, demonstration vineyard, vegetable garden, field crop demonstrations and children’s barn. 573.449.3518

A herd of more than 1,000 bison roam free on the 4,000-acre Sayersbrook Bison Ranch and Lodge in Potosi. A tour of the ranch includes riding on a covered wagon to feed a bison herd. 573.438.4449

Visit Lorberg Farms in late September or early October to participate in molasses-making. This working farm in Gordonville, Mo., near Cape Girardeau, also offers wheat-grinding demonstrations on stone equipment. 573.243.2858