In our “Field Trip” feature, we take readers into the field to learn more about agriculture across the state. Recently, we visited an agritourism farm in Youngsville. This blog is a companion piece to a feature in the February issue of the Agricultural Review.
John Hill is a collector.
He’s spent a lifetime collecting kitchen products and antique farm equipment. His collection includes can openers, cherry stoners, milk bottles and countless contraptions from a bygone era.
“One of the things I enjoy is telling people all these stories because they don’t know what it is,” Hill said.
Most of the collection dates from the 19th and early 20th century, and many of the pieces have a local connection.
“They were pretty smart people,” Hill said.
The collection is just one of the attractions at Hill Ridge Farms in Youngsville. For the past 44 years, John Hill has managed the agritourism farm to teach people about the area’s agricultural heritage. Each year, thousands of school children and families flock to the farm.
There are more than 600 agritourism farms across the state, ranging from pick-your-own farms and pumpkin patches to wedding venues and wineries. For many, agritourism can be a way to support other farming operations. For Hill, it has become his year-round income. But that wasn’t always the case.
Hill grew up on the property that’s now Hill Ridge Farms. His parents planted tobacco and other row crops. After college he moved to Charlotte to work in banking and sales. He moved back to Youngsville to work the family farm, but had to work in Raleigh to make ends meet. Eventually, he opened up part of the family farm so people could pick their own vegetables.
He said his dad didn’t like the idea of having people on the farm at first. “Anybody with a new idea in the country back then was pretty bold,” Hill said. Eventually, his dad came around and really enjoyed it.
Since then, Hill Ridge Farms has added several agricultural exhibits, a corn house, animal displays, train rides, hayrides, pumpkin patches, rental spaces and a grill. Last season, the farm added Festival of Lights, a Christmas display and hayride featuring 100,000 lights.
“We want to keep this thing forever,” Hill said. “And this is one reason we’re trying to add things to it, to sustain additional visitors.”
Heather Overton, of Wake Forest, is one of the visitors that keeps coming back. Her family has been visiting Hill Ridge Farms for the past five years.
“We didn’t make it in 2011, but we went four times in 2010,” said Overton. “They seem to add something new every year.”
Her children’s favorite activities are the giant slide and corn house, but during the Festival of Lights it was the train ride.
“Everyone that went said the train ride was great with all the lights. I also heard a lot about meeting Santa and having hot cocoa,” she said.
Train rides may be a leap for smaller agritourism operations, but Hill remembers that Hill Ridge Farms wasn’t created overnight. It took a lot of trial-and-error to grow the business.
Hill says it’s important to keep innovating. He offers these other tips for those interested in starting or improving on their agritourism operation:
- Hire good employees: “A lot of nights, I don’t even come out here because I know they can do it better.”
- Retain repeat business: “You always want to make the customer feel like they had a better experience than they thought they would when they left home.”
- Be a people person: “If I had any advice, they need to like people and they need to keep it a family thing.”
- Be willing to adapt and change: “If you want to get people in, it ain’t running a little ad in your local newspaper. You’ve really got to market.”
- Always plan for the next step: “To me, you need to stay ahead of the curve. You’ve got to be thinking about your next step.”
- Keep it family friendly: “You don’t need [employees] that talk ugly. We want people to have a good experience when they leave here.”
- Learn from others: “If there’s people trying to get into a business…they really need to go to things like the Agritourism Networking Association.”
You can take the next step by joining the Agritourism Networking Association at one of its upcoming conferences. The association will host its annual meeting Feb. 21-22 in Carolina Beach. In addition, there are three mini-conferences planned across the state in Rockingham County Feb. 28, Stanly County March 14, and Henderson County March 28.