Corn maze

Corn mazes, like this one near Shakopee, are a popular type of agritourism and could be a seasonal staple of a new agritourism business in Northfield Township. (File photo/southernminn.com)

A Northfield Township farm could soon be converted into a prosperous agritourism business, with a focus on helping children and families understand where their food comes from.

Colleen Almen is trying to make the idea a reality, applying for a Conditional Use Permit on behalf of her father DuWayne Hohrman. With Hohrman nearing retirement, Almen is hoping to keep the farm in the family, which requires moving beyond traditional crop farming.

Farming is something that runs through her family’s blood, and while Almen isn’t a farmer herself she has experience in providing agricultural education for youth, having run the Children’s Barnyard at the Rice County Fair for years. With training from the University of Minnesota in agritourism safety, Almen envisions transforming the farm into a safe and fun learning environment, offering a variety of opportunities for outdoor play.

“There’s become a real disconnect between the general public and the agricultural industry,” Almen said. “We want to show the public where their food comes from.”

While fall would be a crucial time of year for the business, Almen hopes to go year round, offering attractions such as corn mazes, corn pits, a hay pyramid and hay rides. Animals would be a part of the operation as well with a year-round petting zoo.

While the primary days of operation would be Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Almen indicated that things could take place on the farm earlier in the week as well. Regular hours of operation could run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with special events and kids camps a possibility as well.

Almen expressed confidence that the proposal could work and would be well received by neighbors,” “strengthen(ing) the relations between the public and the farmers.” While expressing support for the general concept, Planning Commissioners on Thursday said they needed a lot more details.

“Conceptually it’s a great idea,” said Commissioner John McCarthy. But I think there’s a lot more work that has to be done on this.”

Issues raised by the Planning Commission include restrooms, traffic and parking, as well as the impact of potential events. A proposed parking lot would only allow for about 40 to 50 spaces, according to Rice County Zoning Administrator Trent McCorkell.

While Almen believes that could be sufficient, Commissioners encouraged her to consider either enlarging the lot or adding an additional one. They also wanted to see a clearer analysis of potential traffic impacts, although she believes they would be minimal.

As a result of the uncertainty, commissioners opted to table the proposal. Regardless of what approach they recommend, final approval will be given or denied by the county Board of Commissioners.

Regardless of whether Almen’s request is ultimately approved or denied, there’s no question that agritourism has risen dramatically in popularity in recent years, leaving local governments in rural areas scrambling to get in on the trend.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture, the economic impact of agritourism tripled from 2002 to 2017. The National Restaurant Association’s 2015 Culinary Forecast showed that the top “food trend” is interest in local, sustainable agriculture.

Even as much of the hospitality industry has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in agritourism has only grown. Offering a family-friendly outdoor experience, a trip to a local agritourism farm can make for a fun, safer and less expensive alternative to a big vacation.

Wendy Wustenberg of the Wind Swept Hill Farm & Studio near Farmington has been on the frontlines of promoting agritourism as part of the North Star Farm Tour. Wustenberg helped to found the tour six years ago and sits on the nonprofit’s Board of Directors.

Though she wasn’t familiar with the specifics of Almen’s proposal, she sees the general idea as excellent and likely to gain strong traction given the broader trend toward interest in learning about agriculture.

“The more that people can understand about agriculture, the better,” she said. “Nothing beats being (on a farm) in person.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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