Small farms across America tend to their latest crop: tourists.


When was the last time you heard much about small farms in America? Back in 1985 when Willie Nelson launched Farm Aid?

The small-farm life hasn't gotten any easier since the days when Willie first started collecting cash for the country's cropkeepers. "Over the last 10 to 15 years, we've seen large agribusiness operations [farms with at least $1 million in annual revenues] begin to take over commodity production," says Desmond Jolly, an agricultural economist at University of California, Davis, and director of UC's Small Farm Center. "Small farms have to find ways to create niches like specialty crops, products, and selling directly to consumers."

For many farmers, that niche is agricultural tourism, known simply as agritourism. An umbrella term that encompasses everything from roadside produce stands to U-pick farms to on-site bed-and-breakfast operations, agritourism has helped more than a few farmers keep their businesses - many of them generations old - from being plowed under. But it offers a great deal more than family fun and new life for some old farms; it also helps people reconnect to history and the source of all that food they buy at their local megamarket. (Yes, Virginia, milk does come from cows. Believe it or not, more than a few farmers can tell tales of kids who were flat-out flummoxed by that fact.)

And the one crop that farmers never charge for is their stories.

A Peach of an Idea

Larry King was in their cornfield. So was Oprah Winfrey. And this summer? Jay Leno is expected to pop up and stay until late October. No, celebrities aren't turning up to help harvest the Schnepf Farms crops; their likenesses were cut into the cornfields, for Mark and Carrie Schnepf's notion of a great maze.

Celebrity mazes are just one of the ideas the Schnepfs have come up with to entice visitors to their 250-acre farm in Queen Creek, Arizona.

Mark's grandparents purchased the farm in 1941 and sent his parents, Ray and Thora, to get it going. The couple spent their honeymoon night sharing a shack with a farmhand. The ­Schnepfs grew cotton and potatoes, and, through the 1960s, Ray was called the Potato King of Arizona. Over the years they added other crops, and a majority went to New York by rail. "There was a rail spur right on the farm," says Mark.

But that business dwindled over time, and "in the early 1990s we knew we had to do something completely different or sell it for development [like all the neighboring farms]," he says.

Carrie, the former city girl who had married Mark in 1991, led the way. She kicked off the farm's first peach festival in 1992. "I had my mother out there with a little stand, and 6,000 people showed up," says Carrie. "Our orchards were picked clean in 30 minutes." Now the peach festival - held each May - attracts 25,000 people over three days. And the October pumpkin festival pulls in a bumper crop of 150,000 visitors. Other Schnepf Farms fun includes a bakery and a "Lease a Peach Tree" program that allows people to pick their own - some trees serve up to 150 pounds of peaches each - without battling crowds. And if the weather doesn't play fair? "They get to enjoy what farmers enjoy: weather-related risk," says Carrie.

Contact (480) 987-3100 or schfarm@earthlink.netwww.schnepffarms.com
Or Consider Masker Orchards in Warwick, New York: (845) 986-1058; www.maskers.com