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RARE RETREATS

In the heartland, getting back to the land

Agritourism gives city dwellers a taste of the farm life they no longer have access to in their daily lives.

August 21, 2005|Colleen Fliedner and Karen Hamlin | Special to The Times

ASK urban kids where peas and carrots come from, and they may answer "the supermarket."

"We've lost our connection with the land," said Bruce Wicks, director of graduate studies at the University of Illinois, Champaign, one of the top U.S. agricultural schools.

Family farms used to be the backbone of the American economy. Today, some are making ends meet by turning to agritourism -- opening up their farms to city dwellers interested in getting involved in the seeding, cultivation and harvest cycle.

"Sixty years ago, one in three people had family who owned a farm," Wicks said. "They could go for a visit, then go back to their home in the city."

That's no longer true. Still, Wicks said, "There's some sort of primal urge in most of us to be associated with the land. So today, people are experiencing farm life through agritourism."

What began years ago as "you-pick" farms has blossomed into an industry that includes vineyards with tasting rooms, farmers' markets, fruit orchards, Christmas tree ranches, corn mazes, tractor museums, pumpkin patches and dairy and reindeer farms.

Thousands of farms, orchards and ranches across the country are involved in some aspect of the agritourism industry, either as an activity or combining a place to stay with a back-to-the-land experience. For information across the United States, see www.farmstop.com or www.agritourismworld.com. For California agritourism, check out www.calagtour.org.

To get an idea of the diversity of offerings, we looked at three programs in Illinois, which has more than 1,200 agribusinesses. Here are a few of the state's most successful:

* Hardy's Reindeer Ranch and Linda's Oak Meadows Bed & Breakfast Resort. The reindeer ranch is in Rantoul, Ill., (217) 893-3407, www.reindeerranch.com. Mark and Julie Hardy brought in a herd of reindeer more than 10 years ago and added a Christmas tree farm. Although Christmas is the most popular season, tourists visit Hardy's year-round. They'll find a challenging 10-acre corn maze in a variety of shapes -- dragons, basketball players, the Illinois state logo. Hardy's also offers hayrides, a pedal-cart race track, group cookouts, banquet facilities and farm tours. Guests gather around the old pot-bellied stove for homemade fudge or warm cookies.

About eight miles away, Julie Hardy's mom, Linda Kibler, runs Linda's Oak Meadows Bed & Breakfast Resort, (217) 897-1775, www.oakmeadows.com, a newer Victorian inn on 11 acres. It has a heated pool, golf and a fitness room, among other amenities. Rates begin at $150 a night ($200 for a three-room suite).

* Baxter's Vineyards & Winery, (217) 453-2528, www.nauvoowinery.com. The winery was established in 1857 by Emile Baxter near Nauvoo, Ill. Five generations later, the founder's descendants have enhanced the winery operation by adding a gift shop, antiques store, wine-tasting room and home-baked pies. More than 50,000 visitors stop by Baxter's Vineyards each year.

* Eckert's country store and farms, (800) 745-0513, www.eckerts.com, owned and operated since 1837 by seven generations of the Eckert family. The main location, a 500-acre farm, is in Belleville near the Missouri border and has a large pick-your-own operation: strawberries, peaches, blackberries, apples, pumpkins and Christmas trees. Other offerings include a country-style restaurant, bakery, deli and wagon rides. This destination draws more than 375,000 visitors annually. Other locations are in Millstadt and Grafton.

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