by Courtney Llewellyn
The first three words you see when you visit Pond Hill Farm’s website are Eat, Drink and Play. Those are the focuses of this popular farm destination in Harbor Springs, MI, and their desire to draw in visitors isn’t limited to just the growing or harvest seasons.
Jimmy Spencer of Pond Hill Farm spoke of offering year-round recreation opportunities during the recent Great Lakes Expo. Spencer said the farm started in 1995 as a roadside stand selling eggs. They had no farming experience, but decided to expand into vegetables. “It took some thinking outside the box to turn it into a year-round business,” he said.
Pond Hill Farm now features a farm store, café, winery, brewery, playground, petting zoo, trout pond, hiking trails, gnome house hunts and more. “There’s produce lots of places, but can they explore the property too?” Spencer asked of visitors. “It’s good for the whole family.”
He encouraged other farmers interested in agritourism to consider their clientele – who are you trying to attract? Spencer noted they have 200 acres with six miles of trail system, which is a critical part of connecting people to the property. “I’m a firm believer that nobody owns the land, we just take care of it for a while,” he added. At the same time, though, he said farmers need to diversify income streams and get the most out of their property.
Pond Hill Farm features different attractions every season. In spring, they provide greenhouse tours (often with an adult beverage). They host an Easter egg hunt, snow or no. Spencer said they’re also looking to add more U-pick opportunities with strawberries and raspberries. “I would be okay if that just broke even because of other income opportunities that come from it,” he said – such as visits to the café or farm store. The family converted an old dairy barn into their store/eatery, as it was the only building on the property when they bought it.
Come summer, the trail system is in use, including wagon rides. They also want to expand free offerings, such as providing a volleyball net and a basketball hoop. Spencer has a dream of creating a human foosball field as well.
“We get thousands of visitors every weekend starting in September,” Spencer said. The leaf peepers are drawn to the farm in autumn, and Spencer added that October is their busiest and most important month. (It’s also when they offer pumpkin bowling and pumpkin smashing.) Over the course of this season, they’ll see tens of thousands of visitors.
It’s the winter recreation that’s critical though. At a time when many other operations are hibernating, albeit briefly, Pond Hill Farm is still welcoming visitors. Located in a northerly resort town, it’s important they offer something for the locals too, not just seasonal tourists. The trails are used for cross country skiing and snowshoeing, and Spencer said the grooming cost for the trails is low.
They also schedule special weekend events, such as trailside wine and beer tastings, pizza and sledding parties, bonfires and s’mores and teepee building. For safety reasons, they have families sign waivers for the sled hill, but they don’t charge admission to the trails or for sledding – Spencer said they instead see a direct benefit to the business in the café and other on-site outlets.
“The outdoor environment is much easier for large groups to gather,” he said. “It’s a multi-age group experience.”
During the school year, Pond Hill hosts a lot of farm education programs, which Spencer said provide “a very intangible monetary value.” “We’re investing in the future with these kids,” he said. When possible, they also host farm-to-table dinners and farm camps.
A lot of farms are getting into the wedding game, but Spencer is on the fence about continuing to host them because having a private event means you have to turn the public away.
He reiterated that developing outdoor recreation helps people connect and be a part of your property. People like to come back every year to see what’s new – so things need to evolve. “And once you start something, people expect it,” he cautioned. “It’s easier to add something than to take it away,” so carefully consider what experiences you want to feature on your farm. And remember, you need to manage things, not just build them.
Pond Hill Farm employs 13 to 14 year-round employees, expanding to up to 50 during summer. Communication with the team is key for things to run smoothly when so much is going on all the time. Luckily, Spencer said, about 95% of their offerings are self-guided, with lots of signage. So far, that’s working for them.
It’s not all diversified income, though. “Our insurance continues to climb because of the number of activities we have,” Spencer said. “Before anyone else gets into this, they need to weigh the cost/benefit. For us, there’s way more benefit.”
It’s not all smooth sailing either. They’ve had to expand their parking area over the years and now they’re seeing some zoning issues with the local township. “But we’re working hard to manage our events,” Spencer said.
On top of all that, Pond Hill is still a working farm. They sell at three farmers markets a week. It’s about creating income year-round too. “If people aren’t coming down our road, we need to head out of it,” Spencer said.