by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Creating an agritourism destination isn’t all fun and games — though it’s certainly helpful to provide a huge variety of fun and games. Developing Long Acre Farms from a produce and crop farm to an agritourism site that draws visitors from hundreds of miles around has taken 25 years. These days, the agritourism has outstripped the crop and vegetable farming as its claim to fame. In fact, Long Acre farms only 20 acres and rents the rest.
Long Acre grows specialty pumpkins, produce to sell in the farm market and grapes for its winery, JD Wine Cellars. Opened in 2010, the winery produces 20 kinds of wine. But the best-known crop on the farm is the five acres of corn grown for the Amazing Maize Maze™, the first in New York.
This past year, the corn maze theme was “20 Years of Twists and Turns” to celebrate the maze’s 20th anniversary. The maze design also depicted the fourth generation on the farm, Sarah Henning, who is co-owners Doug and Joan Allen’s daughter. She returned to work on the farm full-time.
“If you look at the picture it is basically four mazes within one maze,” Joan said.
The upper left corner featured a windmill representing Joan’s grandparents, Arthur and Dora Lawrence, who started a diverse farm in the 1920’s. It became known as Long Acre Farms because many of the crop fields measured over a mile long.
The second quadrant was for Joan’s parents, Harlan and Charleen Larwence, who shifted from dairy and farmed about 1,500 acres of vegetables and crops in the 60s and 70s.
The third quadrant symbolized Doug and Joan, who started the seasonal farm market, gift shop, ice cream stand, maze and agritourism aspects of the farm. The fourth featured a large question mark representing Sarah, the fourth generation.
“We don’t know what the farm may look like in the next 20 years,” Joan said.
The center of the maze depicted the number “20” for the number of years the farm has featured a corn maze. It’s currently the second longest continuously operated corn maze in the world.
Henning is just following her mom’s example of innovating on the farm. Joan said that Long Acre introduces new features and activities to keep the farm’s experience one that draws visitors back year after year.
“We’ve always diversified to make sure there’s something new,” she added. “Visitors want something upgraded when they come back. We try to keep it fresh and interesting.”
This year, Long Acre introduced its newly remodeled market. Joan said that the farm combined two buildings into one heated, air-conditioned facility.
The farm employs about 35, not counting family, during the busy season, and two full-timers during the off season, except for part-timers that help with winter events.
With new help comes new ideas. Sarah and her husband, Matthew, moved back to the farm last September. Sarah manages on the farm and Matthew works off-site. Joan said Sarah suggested wood-fired pizza as another food option for visitors.
“She’s also into different food options, like unprocessed foods,” Joan said. “Her vision is healthy.”
That meshes will with the farm market and the local foods movement.
Since the farm features so many children-oriented activities — including multiple pieces of playground equipment, corn gun, pumpkin gun, jumping pillows, mini maze, pedal cars, petting zoo and more — the addition of the winery has brought in additional income for the farm.
“Our customers drive things,” Joan said. “We give what they ask us for. We had some ask for more adult things.”
The Tasting Room inside JD Wine Cellars offers samples of its wines: classic viniferas, hybrids and fruit wines.
The winery also creates an upscale connection to yet another branch of the business: public meeting space. Long Acre remodeled a former hay barn in 2001 for a site suitable for corporate meetings, weddings and reunions. The Party Barn can host up to 600.
“We’re getting more requests for weddings,” Joan said.
Especially considering the rustic wedding trend, it’s easy to see how Long Acre is hosting more weddings. This year, Long Acre added a patio to the facility.
Not every idea implemented at Long Acre Farms results in a homerun. Joan admitted, “Some sound like a great idea and don’t pan out well. Sometimes you have to give a couple years and see if it catches on. Sometimes the timing is wrong. Maybe it’s too early for it to catch on.”
Long Acre had tried getting into wine before, but the farm hadn’t established itself as a winery and it didn’t fly.
Becoming an agritourism attraction isn’t right for every farm. Joan said that farmers must be willing to have the public walking their acres.
“It’s challenging,” Joan said. “You learn to not take things so personally. They’re in your back yard, so everything they touch is very personal. You have to get used to things breaking and people not treating things like you’d hope that they would all the time.”
Public perception of farm venue also makes a difference in how they experience their time on the farm. Some visitors from more urban areas don’t tend to understand what to expect from a farm venue.
Joan said some think it will be more like an amusement park with a farm slant, since the farm charges admission to the play areas and maze. But the only “rides” are a hayride and a mini wagon ride through the grounds. Some think that restrooms with flushing toilets will be available, though it’s not feasible for the farm to install the facilities needed. Portable toilets suffice.
Disappointment from these kinds of misunderstandings can cause visitors to leave negative social media reviews, but Joan has learned to ignore unwarranted criticism.
On weekends, when the corn maze was open, parking can sometimes challenge visitors. When the Allens first opened their business to the public, they little imagined the direction the farm would go. Joan said that perhaps they should have laid out the buildings better if they had planned the subsequent expansions so that adequate parking would be on the same side of the road.
“We’re maxed out so we can’t do anything more on this side of the road,” Joan said. “Ten years ago, we did actually think of moving everything across the road and then trying to piece out how that would work financially. The electric and everything would be complicated.”
She advises other farms considering agritourism to “be different. We do a different spin so it’s not like the farm next door. There’s room for lots of variety. Ask yourself, ‘What will be unique to make your place special?’”