Thank you for supporting our journalism. This article is available exclusively for our subscribers, who help fund our work at the Chicago Tribune.
After a relentlessly dry Illinois summer, the dirt beneath Kevin Heap’s well-worn boots is parched, but with his 240 acres of corn and soybeans harvested weeks ago, the 34-year-old farmer is no longer thirsty for rain.
On the contrary, sunshine, not showers, is critical to the success of the Minooka, Illinois, family farm, which during the fall season derives its income primarily from a popular agritourism business called Heap’s Giant Pumpkin Farm.
He and his wife, Kaylee Heap, 32, have spent the last 11 years growing the farm’s agritourism business from a pick-your-own pumpkin patch to a full slate of attractions including moonlight hayrides, a haunted corn maze and homemade barbecue.
“We live, eat, sleep and breathe it every day,” Heap said.
Agritourism has boomed in recent years as family farms look to diversify their operations, growing from modest roadside stands and pumpkin patches to elaborate fall festivals, farm-to-table weddings and offerings that capitalize on quirky trends, like goat yoga.
Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series examining rural communities in Illinois. Thank you for supporting our journalism. Subscribe here.
Nationwide, agritourism revenue more than tripled between 2002 and 2017, according to the most recent data from the Census of Agriculture. When adjusted for inflation, agritourism revenue grew from $704 million in 2012 to almost $950 million in 2017, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
But the growth of the industry in Illinois can be difficult to pinpoint. While agritourism experts have confirmed 212 farms in Illinois incorporate some form of agritourism, they say that number is underreported, considering there are more than 70,000 farms in the state.
Total revenues derived from the state’s agritourism is also tough to quantify, given the range of activities that could be considered agritourism.
“We know there are many farms out there that are not listed in any agritourism directories, but they are offering programs on an ad hoc basis, like a meat producer hosting field days on the farm for their customers,” said A. Bryan Endres, a professor of food and agricultural law at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Agritourism revenue represents just a fraction of total farm revenue, accounting for 5.6% of farm-related income nationwide in 2017, according to the Census of Agriculture. But it can help small farms with row crops diversify their business model as they look to compete with larger farms, Endres said.
“This type of diversification also has a strong lifestyle aspect, because agritourism events are fun, and gives farmers and their families a chance to engage with their customers,” Endres said.
Agriculture is the number one industry in Illinois in terms of economic impact, contributing nearly $9 billion to the state’s economy annually, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Around 1.5 million Illinois workers are employed in the food and fiber system, with the state’s 72,500 farms using 75% of Illinois land, which officials describe as “some of the most fertile soil in the world.”
Like many industries, agritourism took a hit early in the pandemic. In March 2020, “everyone was on lockdown, and agritourism programs during the spring and early summer, like berry picking, were absolutely devastated,” Endres said.
“But when the lockdown ended, the farms that have pumpkin patches saw their business exploding by the fall, because folks wanted to enjoy the autumn harvests, and were able to get outside and safely social distance,” he said.
For agritourism powerhouses like the Goebbert family, the annual fall festivals at their locations in South Barrington and Pingree Grove are far removed from the roadside vegetable stand George Goebbert opened in Arlington Heights in 1948.
This year’s offerings include a pumpkin-eating dinosaur, pig races and Animal Land, which features a menagerie of “exotic” animals including camels, zebras and kangaroos. The cost of admission is between $17 to $21, and due to COVID-19 safety precautions, the tickets this year had to be purchased online.
“We’re still facing a lot of obstacles with the pandemic, but it’s been a pretty good year,” said Ryan Smith, 24, great-grandson of George Goebbert.
“Every fall, I meet visitors who tell me, ‘my parents brought me here when I was a kid, and now, I’m bringing my own kids,’ and they show me all of these old photos of them on the farm, which is really cool,” Smith said.
Kevin and Kaylee Heap declined to say what percentage of their farm’s revenues are reaped from agritourism attractions, but said roughly 90% of their 240 acres are planted with corn and soybean crops, and 20 acres carved out for a pick-your-own pumpkin patch and other amenities.
On a recent weekday afternoon, a few dozen visitors to the Heap’s farm included a cheerful contingent of squealing preschoolers gliding down a giant slide on swatches of burlap, with the business charging an admittance fee of around $6 to $8.
The agritourism business also counts on an additional revenue stream from the sales of pumpkins, fresh cut flowers and concessions, Kevin Heap said.
Most of the revenue on the farm still comes from the corn and soybean crops. This season marked the 155th harvest for the farm, which was founded in 1866 when Abel Heap established a homestead on the corner of U.S. Route 52 and Grove Road following the Civil War.
Kevin Heap returned to his family’s farm in 2009 after graduating from Purdue University with a degree in agriculture and economics. He and Kaylee Heap and their three children ages 4, 2, and four months, live in a house on the farm next door to his parents, Gary and Linda Heap.
“I always knew what I wanted to do, and I always enjoyed agriculture,” Kevin Heap said, keeping one eye on a gaggle of school children clambering aboard a wagon ride and the other on his smartphone app beaming the latest corn and soybean trading prices.
Kaylee Heap, who works remotely from the farm for an agricultural firm based in Fargo, North Dakota, said when she and Kevin met 15 years ago, she “learned really fast that I’ve got to help out on the farm in order to see him.”
Not unlike the growing season for their corn and soybean crops, Heap said the success of the farm’s agritourism venture is dependent on the whims of Mother Nature.
“Weather is a big deal for us, so we’re always praying for a nice, dry fall,” Heap said.
Despite the growing numbers of farmers like the Heaps who are diversifying their traditional crop and livestock operations with agritourism businesses, the number of farms in the U.S. has declined dramatically over the last century, even while the average farm size has increased, said Brenna Ellison, associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
In 1900, nearly 40% of the U.S. population lived on farms; now that number is around 1%, Ellison said, adding that “the vast majority of U.S. farms are considered family farms.”
A recent USDA report estimates that nearly 98% of farms are considered family farms, with midrange and large family farms accounting for the majority of production value, Ellison said.
Larger farms reporting more than $1 million in annual sales make up about 66% of production value even though they represent only around 4% of total farms, Ellison said.
At the Illinois Farm Bureau in Bloomington, officials are optimistic about the future of the state’s agritourism industry, and say offerings ranging from barn weddings to berry-picking— play a key role in not only preserving farmland, but educating citizens about its rich history.
“When you bring kids and adults to a farm, there is a huge opportunity to provide them with a better understanding about where their food comes from,” said Raghela Scavuzzo, the executive director for the Illinois Specialty Growers Association.
Illinois is the largest producer of pumpkins, and also annually ranks either first or second in the nation in both corn and soybean production, Scavuzzo said.
The state is also the fourth largest pork producer, and typically one of the top five states in cash income, crop cash receipts, and total value of farm real estate, she said.
Illinois farmland is reaping the rewards of the booming pandemic-era real estate market, with an abundance of properties currently up for sale. Many are being sold at auctions, which potentially attract better offers, said Stephanie Spiros, the Illinois and Indiana managing broker at the Agricultural Exchange in Danville.
Spiros said many of today’s sellers are handing over the keys to another farmer, rather than selling to a developer planning to pave over the land with a residential subdivision or manufacturing warehouse.
In addition, Spiros said, “there’s definitely a demand for farmland as an investment from people who have not been in this space before, and who are diversifying their portfolio.”
“There is also the nostalgia and romance of having a piece of property in the country, especially during the pandemic, when many people are taking a look at things differently, and moving out of the cities so they can have more land while they work from home,” Spiros said.
Farmland typically offers a stable return on most investments, Spiros said, adding that while it might not be as aggressive as playing the stock market, “it’s also not as volatile.”
At the Heap family’s farm, Kevin Heap said his father, Gary Heap, 65, who is passionate about barbecue, would be cooking for the crowds anticipated to arrive for the tail end of fall festivities, which conclude on Halloween.
“Everyone’s got to help, and do whatever it takes to get the job done, and make things work on the farm,” Kevin Heap said.
“It’s always the weather and Mother Nature that decides if it will go well from year to year,” he said, “but that’s farming, that’s agriculture, so you just try to do your best and live with it.”
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune