Tuesday, June 22, 2010

« Back to Article Farmer looks to agritourism to save his business

NEW MILFORD -- On Monday, farmer Dean Schultz finished planting corn seeds that will eventually grow and be landscaped into a haunted corn maze.

Since it opened in 2000, the Larson's Farm Market corn maze has become a local tradition.

The corn maze may also be an integral part of saving Schultz's livelihood. He is hoping he can use agritourism, or bringing visitors to the farm, to sustain the business originally started by his grandfather.

Schultz sells sweet corn to a local farmers market and is getting ready to open his own produce stand in a couple of weeks, but his main focus is expanding the agritourism part of the business.

He plans to have two mazes next year and perhaps start a garden where people can pick their own produce.

Schultz tried to start a community supported agriculture program, commonly referred to as a CSA, at the beginning of the season to bring in income. In a CSA, community members buy shares of the crops before the season starts. In return, they are given part of the yield every week during the growing season.

Initial interest was strong, Schultz said. More than 300 people inquired about joining.

"But when it came time to sign on the dotted line, we didn't get enough of a response," Schultz said. Only 40 people made a commitment, so Schultz has had to scrap the CSA idea for now.

"I don't see how anyone could survive on crop sales alone," said Stephen Paproski, who owns the 100-acre Castle Hill Farm in Newtown. "A third of our income comes from agritourism."

Agritourism has been growing for the last 10 years and has become more popular in the past five years, said Jane Eckert, the president of St. Louis-based Eckert Agrimarketing.

Agritourism can include all types of activities, from pick-your-own crops to hunting, Eckert said.

"When people step into our personal properties, they're willing to pay for the experience," Eckert said. "There is a growing category of people who have their weddings or large group picnics on farms. Farms have large spaces that can accommodate large numbers of people."

Castle Hill Farm has a maze, a hay ride, a pumpkin patch and bonfires in the fall. Paproski is a third-generation farmer, but the first who has had to turn to agritourism to survive.

Schultz is also a third-generation farmer. His grandfather owned Larson's Farm, where New Milford High School was built. Schultz now leases land because it is too expensive to buy. He used to farm the cornfields on Junction Road in Brookfield, until that property was sold to the Steiner family for development.

He is hesitant to invest too much money in his current farm, out of fear it will be sold as well.

"This is my last shot, but if this piece goes I'm done for sure," Schultz said.

Contact Vinti Singh at vsingh@newstimes.com or 203-731-3331.

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