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Friday, 05 May 2017 12:24

Agritourism connects people with local food producers

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Tom Laughlin's new venture, Wisconsin Barn Quilts motor coach tours, will highlight the history of area barns, which are graced by colorful symbols of our past. Tom Laughlin's new venture, Wisconsin Barn Quilts motor coach tours, will highlight the history of area barns, which are graced by colorful symbols of our past. Photo courtesy of Tom Laughlin

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Here in the Midwest we tend to take our farms for granted, surrounded as we are by the red barns of earlier generations.

Your great-grandparents knew exactly where their food came from. Even 150 years ago, 90 percent of the population grew nearly all of its food. Today, only 2 percent does.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms in the United States peaked at 7 million in 1935. Only 14 percent of U.S. residents now live in a rural area, the lowest number since the 1850s.

"Our food supply is so easy, we take it for granted," said Tom Laughlin of Lake Geneva. "Yet, that same food supply is very tenuous."

More people seem to be aware of these shortcomings. While the distance between supplier and consumer has never been greater, more consumers are actively searching out opportunities to reconnect with their food supply.

The search for their agricultural roots has led to a new industry -- agritourism.

Take Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg for example.

He spent time last Sunday on a family farm in Blanchardville, a rural community about 50 miles west of Janesville.

Zuckerberg is on a tour of all 50 states to learn, face-to-face, more about the 175 million people who log onto the social media platform each day.

In his visit to the Gant family farm, Zuckerberg tasted unpasteurized milk straight from the cow, fed a calf, drove a 70-year-old tractor, then sat down for a home-cooked meal.

"The family is incredibly disciplined. Everyone works daylight to dark, seven days a week," Zuckerberg wrote on his own Facebook page. "When we were driving around his property, Jed told me he’d rather feed the cattle than feed himself if it came down to that."

Laughlin understands the universal appeal of the farm.

He is the producer of "American Barn Stories" that have appeared on PBS stations across the country.

His new venture, Wisconsin Barn Quilts motor coach tours, will highlight the history of each barn, which is graced by these colorful symbols of our past.

Barn quilts, colorful eight-foot-square designs painted on plywood, are then hung on barns, bringing attention to our agricultural past and present.

"It’s very satisfying to know that I’m putting my time and effort into something that matters to people," Laughlin said.

The groups Laughlin is working with on the tours are all different but "inherently, they’re all interested in the same thing -- they want to know the place we come from," Laughlin said. And by extension, where their food comes from.

Rock County has more than 200 of the quilts on display. They are popular with residents and visitors alike, according to the Evansville Chamber of Commerce.

It’s a trend that’s taken off across the Stateline area with hundreds of quilts across Rock, Walworth and Green counties in Wisconsin and Winnebago and McHenry counties in Illinois. Brochures are available for self-guided tours.

Farm dining

But ag tourism isn’t one specific place or thing.

Yuppie Hill Poultry, a small sustainable farm in Burlington, has a quilt on its barn and tourists in its hen house.

The Hen House Cafe features a farm-to-table dinner every second Saturday of the month.

"We always sell out," owner Lynn Lein said. The next dinner is May 13 and features a cheese croquette appetizer and a peppercorn crusted sirloin steak, all sourced locally. Often, the menu will include chicken or turkey from the farm, but other meats, vegetables and dairy are sourced locally. "That’s really what the customers are looking for, that local connection," Lein said.

It wasn’t always that way, according to Peter Fritsch of Rushing Waters Fisheries in Palmyra.

"It used to be that chefs wanted the exotic ingredients. The further away, the better," Fritsch said. "Now it’s all about locally sourced foods."

Rushing Waters primarily raises and processes trout for the restaurant industry, but in the past few years, the owners have added a restaurant to the business.

(For behind the scenes photographs at Rushing Waters, tap HERE.)

The Trout House has been featured on "The Wisconsin Foodie" television program. Fritsch, who has been with the fish farm for 20 years, said that same mentality of sourcing your food super locally is true for consumers as well as chefs.

"The whole customer base has changed over time," Fritsch said. "People want to know where their food comes from. The customers want to see where their food comes from -- they want to go on the farm."

"With our Hook and Cook, they can do exactly that," Fritsch said. "They catch their fish and we cook it for them."

Such active participation in the food chain makes excellent television it turns out. In a survey conducted by "Wisconsin Foodie" last year, 85 percent of the respondents said they have participated in some type of agritourism.

Wendi Devan, director of strategy at "Wisconsin Foodie," says they have had great success working with Rushing Waters.

This month, Fritsch took Wisconsin Foodie patrons out hunting morel mushrooms. Afterward, the catch is cooked up by Chef Jonathon Cross and dinner is served.

"It’s these types of experiences that our viewers look for, want to be part of," Devan said. "You can’t get more hands-on than that."

Fritsch agrees. "That same mentality, the foodie crowd, is exactly our customer. They want to get their feet wet and their hands dirty."

These types of direct relationships with food producers actively are sought by tourists.

Agritourism is a growing trend according to the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association, which has more than 100 members working together to market their ag businesses directly to consumers.

One farm in Walworth not only markets directly to its customers, owners Denise and Terry Woods actively encourage their customers to learn more about their food by visiting Highfield Farm Creamery.

"We want them to see the cows as they used to be, should be, can be raised -- eating grass in pastures," Denise Woods said. "We want our customers to see the connection between the land and their food."

Highfield Farm Creamery uses the milk of Jersey cows to create cave-aged traditional cheeses. On April 27 they had a full class of cheese lovers, tasting and grading 10 different cheeses. Because it is offseason for the creamery, Terry Woods explains the cheese making process with a close-up look at the equipment and molds used in the process.

The owners are committed to educating their customers on their farming methods.

"We’re working on organizing our pastures so visitors will be able to see the cows up closer," Denise Woods said. "We’d like to do pasture walks with them eventually."

For most people a pasture walk like that is getting as close as they’ll ever be to a food source. Like fishing for your supper or enjoying a farm-to-table dinner, going down on the farm can be a tasty adventure.

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