Discover Michigan: Fall brings a bounty of agritourism options

By: Jennifer Sigouin | Online Only | Published October 13, 2016

For many Michiganders, fall isn’t complete without a trip to one of the state’s apple orchards, farms or pumpkin patches.

Not only are these activities a seasonal rite of passage, but they’re also helping the state gain traction as a thriving hub for agritourism.

Picking your own apples, sampling wine at a vineyard, or even stopping at a roadside vegetable stand are all agricultural adventures that not only help boost Michigan’s economy, but also make us feel more connected to where our food comes from.

“Michigan is one of the very best places for agritourism because we have so many small family farms that welcome the public to come for a visit,” said Michigan Agritourism Association Executive Director Janice Benson. “Our state’s positioning on the Great Lakes and our diverse, rich soils allow farms to grow such a wide variety of things, like apples, sweet corn and blueberries, but also things that people might not expect, like peaches and melons and hops.”

Benson noted that as the public has become more hungry for locally sourced food, they’ve also become more interested in experiencing a taste of farm life — and farmers are happy to oblige.

“Michigan farmers are very passionate about what they do and they enjoy sharing their farms with the public,” said Benson. “In recent years, more farmers are offering agritourism activities because it’s not only good for business, but it’s so enjoyable for everyone.”

One of those farmers is Jimmy Spencer, owner and operator of Pond Hill Farm in Harbor Springs. Spencer has been in the farming business for 22 years. His parents owned a dairy farm, and he eventually branched out and bought his own land to grow produce on. He started off with a roadside stand, but realized that to sustain his business, he needed something more to draw visitors to the farm itself.

Over the years, Pond Hill Farm has grown into a one-stop agricultural experience, complete with a farm-to-table cafe, a winery and a brewery. Visitors can stroll around the property at their leisure; sample wine, craft beer and cider; explore the livestock barn; go on a hayride; or purchase fresh produce and homemade canned goods from the farm’s store. Also not to miss — for kids and kids at heart — is the “Squash Rocket,” a giant slingshot that launches fruits and vegetables into the fields to feed the farm’s goats and sheep.

“I feel like there aren’t that many places anymore where people can spend half a day,” said Spencer, noting that the farm attracts a diverse crowd, from multi-generational families, to honeymooners and vacationers, to bachelor and bachelorette parties.

Spencer said that Pond Hill Farm continues to grow and is open to the public year-round. Fall weekends bring special activities like pig racing and pumpkin bowling, and in the winter, the farm is open for cross-country skiing, sledding and snowshoeing.

“It’s been really exciting to see the farm getting used all four seasons,” said Spencer.

Closer to metro Detroit, Wolcott Mill Metropark in Ray Township is home to a late-20thcentury, 250-acre working farm that hosts a multitude of activities throughout the year. According to park Operations Manager Susan Schmidt, agricultural destinations like Wolcott Mill provide diverse, immersive educational experiences for all ages.

“The displays, demonstrations and object lessons of agritourism allow visitors to make their own personal connections to food and land,” Schmidt said. “A young person from an urban environment may feel the soil and see where the food they get in a store or restaurant comes from. Older people might remember their own life on a farm as they see how modern equipment has replaced draft horses. … Culture, history, plant and animal sciences come alive through agritourism.”

Schmidt explained that the Farm Center at Wolcott Mill is a working dairy farm that focuses on both education and dairy cow breed preservation.

“Three of our six heritage breeds — Milking Shorthorn, Guernsey and Ayrshire — are on the Livestock Conservancy critical and watch list,” she said. “The farm is actively breeding these types of cows as well as Brown Swiss, Jersey and Holstein breeds.”

Visitors can get an up-close look at the cows, which are milked twice daily, or say hello to the farm’s other animals, including sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, mini horses, draft horses, pigs, a turkey and a donkey.

Jessica Striegle, executive director of the Northville Community Foundation, which operates Maybury Farm in Northville, added that simply reading or hearing about farm life can’t compare to the hands-on educational opportunities that agritourism offers.

“Not only do you get to learn about farms, animals or agriculture, but you get to see, touch or experience the real thing,” said Striegle. “Agritourism also cultivates an appreciation for the importance of farms and allows us to see firsthand the role they play in our everyday lives.”

She added that both kids and adults can benefit from the activities at Maybury Farm, which is open to the public from April through October. Guests can interact with a variety of farm animals  or take part in special programs and events like spring maple syrup tours, sheep shearing, cooking demos, kids workshops, summer day camps, a fall corn maze and more.

With fall underway, now is a prime time to not only experience farm life but also to bring home some of Michigan’s farm-fresh harvests.

“I think everyone loves to simply visit local farms and markets to see what’s in season and bring home the freshest local produce and baked goods,” said Benson. “U-picks are one of the most popular activities, starting with strawberries in the spring and ending with apples and Christmas trees at the end of the season.”

Benson added that southeast Michigan is home to some of the oldest cider mills and farm markets in the state, noting that DeBuck’s Corn Maze and Pumpkin Patch in Belleville, Blake’s Orchard and Cider Mill in Armada, Bird’s Berry Patch and Monster Punk’ns in Romulus, and Eastern Market in Detroit are just a few places to get your fall fix.

“There’s nothing like visiting a cider mill and enjoying fresh cider and doughnuts,” she said. “Pumpkin patches, corn mazes and haunted hayrides can be especially fun at this time of year too, and local farmers markets often have some great seasonal events.”

To search for more agritourism venues and activities across Michigan — or to request a printed directory — visit the Michigan Agritourism Association’s website at www.michiganfarmfun.com.

For more information on Wolcott Mill Metropark, visit www.metroparks.com/parks/wolcott-mill-metropark. For more information on Maybury Farm, visit www.northvillecommunityfoundation.org.

Our Discover Michigan web series explores Michigan’s most road trip-worthy destinations and events. Where’s your favorite place to travel in the mitten? Leave us a comment or email jsigouin@cangnews.com. We may use your suggestion in an upcoming feature.