Oct 3, 2013Agritainment efforts make Minnesota farm a top attraction
Over the past 25 years, Tweite’s Family Farm has adapted to market conditions to emerge as a popular Minnesota agritourism venue.
Tom Tweite represents the fifth generation to live on the farm, which in 2010 was given a centennial plaque from the state marking 100 years of continuous family ownership.
“We’re known for 150 miles around as the fall place to come,” Tom said.
Tweite’s, located in Byron, Minn., started selling farm-grown produce in 1984, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the first building was remodeled. That was also the year of the farm’s first fall festival. Tom planted and harvested the produce himself, then delivered it to his wife Colleen, who ran the operation’s retail store.
Every member of the Tweite family contributed to the growth of the business. Robert and Jeanette, Tom’s parents, chipped in to do their part. Tom and Colleen had four daughters – Nichole, Danielle, Molly and Maggie – who became an integral part of the business.
Tom and Colleen’s eight grandchildren are the “official kid testers” for the activities at the farm. The farm employs about 10 people during the week and 40 on the weekends.
Scott Esser, Danielle’s husband, is the farm’s Director of Fun. Tom and Scott are involved full-time with the farm’s theme park, which sits on 22 acres and houses such features as Pumpkinville, Harvest Town, Dodge City, Enchanted Forest, Spookley Kids Maze, Old Geezer’s Golf and Gem Mining. There’s also a pumpkin patch, corn maze and wagon rides.
After harvesting pumpkins and selling them to a pie processor and a number of local schools, Tom saw the potential of pumpkins and other fall amenities to draw a curious audience – including local school tours.
“When we switched over and began selling pumpkins directly off the small farm, it opened my eyes to the fall time-frame and the opportunity to attract interest,” he said.
Tweite attended a North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA) conference in Toledo, Ohio, where he learned how to conduct such activities as Halloween shows, festivals and displays.
“I’ve made a lot of farm visits, I pay attention to what children’s museums are doing in different cities and I’ve made a lot of good friends – a lot of neat people that started up (doing agritainment offerings) in the last 25 years.”
NAFDMA gave Tweite’s Family Farm its Best of Show award for agritainment operations in 2012.
NAFDMA planned to use the farm as the setting for an Advanced Learning Retreat in August. It was billed as a peer-to-peer learning opportunity for agritourism operators.
“We don’t have a Cabela’s or cities that have 2 million people,” he said. “We’re rural and we have to figure out how to get people to come and shake those nickels out of their pocket. We looked at how Disney does their business and took some other pieces from many individuals and came up with a very unique way of selling tickets, food and pushing outdoor sales, including pumpkins.”
The corn maze is a 12-acre plot that is ticketed separately from the theme park. It generates income through games, food sales and extended hours – with flashlight tours in the evening. The pumpkin patch is the hallmark of the farm, producing from August to just prior to Halloween.
The concession barn is a former dairy building that has been converted to food sales and kitchen operations. It sells dozens of unique food products and take-home confections that are crafted on site.
“We quit counting the number of people coming through the gate, but there are a number of different ways we can track people and they are coming back multiple times,” Tweite said. “People are coming out for homemade fudge and chocolate, and if they choose they can do an area of the farm every single weekend in the fall.”
While Tweite’s focuses much of its activities on young children, the operators have noticed that about 35 percent of their customers don’t have youngsters in tow.
“We were seeing something there,” Tom said. “We expanded the food court, history center and other things to reach more folks. We’re getting the first wave of people who might have been here 20 years ago as small children, and now they’re coming back with their own children.”
Tom cited several concerns for prospective agritainment operators.
“The number one thing if you’re just starting is go to the local government and understand what you can and can’t do,” said Tweite, who has served on nearby planning and zoning boards. “There are more licenses and permits out there than Carter’s pills. There’s nothing worse than opening and having some inspector pull into the yard and say ‘By looking at your website, I can see you’re doing this or that (illegally).‘ It might take a year or more to get something like that ironed out.
“You have to understand what it takes to accomplish this,” he cautioned. “You should visit places like this on a rainy day and see how they’re paying so many staff to stand around and watch one or two people who are there. You can have some very poor years and some very good years. I want to stress to everybody that the sooner you can become your own bank, the better off you are.”
Promoting business and nonprofit use of the facility for customer appreciation days and other such activities can jumpstart an operation during slower times.
“There are 10,000 things I would never do again, but there are a lot of things that definitely work,” he said. “You’ve got to stay on the cutting edge of this. You can’t just stay on the farm anymore. You have to know you’ve got a product you’re going to have to sell, and you’ve got to know how to sell it.
“We are by no means the best or biggest entertainment farm out there,” Tom said. “But we’re able to adapt in an area that is not extremely populated. We have 25 years’ worth of experience doing things that worked and didn’t work.”