Several years ago, Bob and Linda Jones ran a typical central Illinois farm, producing grains and livestock.
Today, families flock to their Jones Strawberry Woods near Pontiac, Ill., to buy house plants and pick strawberries, blueberries, and pumpkins.
The Joneses are keeping up with a growing trend in agriculture. In a bid for revenues that will ameliorate the ups and downs of traditional farms and ranches, "entertainment farming" is the latest strategy.
"We're seeing more nonfarm income from whatever the source," said Ronald Minnaert, chief executive of $42 million-asset State Bank of Graymont, Ill., which finances the Joneses.
Facing rising costs of farming and living, many farmers earn additional income through off-farm jobs. Others seek profits from businesses that add value to their product, such as joining a cooperative to make pasta from the wheat they grow.
Another alternative that's gaining momentum is what the Joneses have done: getting income from farm-related activities that bring people and their dollars directly to the farm - so-called entertainment farming. "I would say, on a national level, that it's growing phenomenally," said Bruce smith, who heads a national direct marketing association for producers.
The strategy adds a new element - tourism - to the factors loan underwriters must consider when underwriting farm-related loans.
Entertainment farming can be pick-your-own businesses, or pumpkin and Christmas tree lots, wagon and animal rides, even mini-zoos.
Some farmers have gone even further to embrace entertainment, selling or turning their farms into nonfarm-related activities.
Jim Tribbett, chief executive officer of $84 million-asset Bank of Whitman, in Colfax, Wash., said one of his customers is contemplating building an amphitheater for outdoor concerts in his field.
"Economics has dictated it," said Mr. Smith, who also owns New Hampshire's High Hopes Orchard. "I could not make a good living just off of my apple orchards. I provide a number of activities in which individuals or families can come to my place, spend some time, and hopefully buy my product."
The Joneses, too, opted to work from home instead of keeping off-farm jobs.
"They looked at it as trying to enhance the dollar revenues on their farm," Mr. Minnaert said. "They weren't able to expand," so they changed their focus. In 1983, they first added strawberries and have since tried several different products and attractions.
"If they can do anything to enhance the income - great," said Kenny Stumpf, vice president at $60 million-asset Eaton Bank, in Eaton, Colo., where vegetable producers have begun luring people to "farmers' markets" at their farms in lieu of similar events in other locations.
Farmers often need additional financing to implement the desired changes.
In evaluating these credits, lenders may have to learn about commodities they aren't familiar with to assess customers' plans, said Mr. Minnaert, who previously had no strawberry loans.
Lenders also must consider the marketability of the farmers' proposed offerings in their areas, he said.
And more people at the farm means new issues for bankers to discuss with customers - like appropriate insurance - Mr. Stumpf said.
"People will sue for anything," he said. "When it was just a family farm ... the last thing they thought about was insurance."