NORTH LAWRENCE, Ohio — Seventeen years ago, Debbie and her husband Joe bought the farm which was for sale next to their home. It had been neglected and needed a lot of work, so they spent a year and a half giving it time, effort, and love. While construction and cleaning took their attention, it also gave the family time with their 3 daughters (at the time ages 6, 4, and 2) to be free to play and roam the farm. The family looks back on that time fondly as bonding and quality family time.
Once restored, they had to determine the purpose of buildings on the farm. Two were perfect for horse boarding – the family already owned horses themselves – and eventually the business grew to boarding a total of 44 horses. They added other activities associated with the horses: riding lessons, summer camps, tours, and horse shows. Their daughters also rode horses so riding and caring for the horses taught them confidence and responsibility.
For income growth and diversity, they grew hay and pumpkins. When Joe and Debbie decided to host their first fall festival, they had a 5 acre patch of pumpkins and did not believe it would be enough. They purchased a load of pumpkins and then realized they had far too many when their 5 acres produced in abundance! They donated the extras to the local school which opened the door for their first field trips.
After a few more years of growth, the farm transitioned away from boarding horses and they developed the horse barn into a beautiful wedding venue. The family celebrates a community culture for the farm, promoting that the farm “belongs” to the couple who is being married. Those couples then return with their families knowing it is their family farm as well. Recent additions include growing sunflowers and adding Christmas on the Farm for the first time in 2020. It had been planned prior to the pandemic, with the family redoing a building for the purpose, and while Covid adjusted some of the plans, they were incredibly happy with the result. The farm’s retail has also found a home in a new facility they built two years ago. Overall, Nickajack Farms looks to grow the community culture – reinforcing that their farm belongs to everyone who comes to visit and enjoy the quiet of their homestead.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced?
Keeping things fresh and new. Our customers don’t want to always come back and do the same thing every time they come to visit us. We appreciate going to agritourism conventions and seeing new ideas on Facebook, so we can take the ideas to adapt them into the business we run.
Another challenge we face is time management. When my kids were younger, it was such a struggle trying to be at home to be a good mom, but also be on the farm and run the operation effectively. My girls are now grown and off the farm with other jobs. My husband and I encourage them (and feel it is vitally important for them) to go off the farm, to have experiences outside this area, before discerning coming back onto the farm full time.
Name something you are most proud of developing or cultivating in your operation?
We are so proud of our school field trip program. When a child leaves they know something about agriculture they didn’t know before they visited our farm. We love watching a child experience something for the first time. For instance, we have had boys who were able to see farm equipment up close for the first time. The excitement they felt was palpable!
We are also proud of developing the culture that our family farm is your family farm. We have generations coming together and visiting our farm together. They will say they are “coming back to our farm to get married” with a sense of their own piece of ownership. We are glad to be everybody’s family farm.
What does NAFDMA mean to you?
It is so enlightening to come to NAFDMA conventions and visit other farms to see others who are doing what we are doing. NAFDMA is seeing you are not alone! I have met so many wonderful people through this organization and can pick up the phone or call someone just to ask “How did you handle this?” At one point, we ran into issues with our wedding barn and new county regulations and we knew we were able to rely on advice and help from other NAFDMA members who had been through similar circumstances. It has also been helpful getting to know vendors who get this industry through NAFDMA.
What is one issue you have faced where the NAFDMA org or another NAFDMA member was able to help?
Online ticket sales – last year was the first time we implemented it. We got so much information about how to fulfill online tickets and run the systems from NAFDMA.
What piece of advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?
Practice patience. So much patience with customers, staff, vendors. Agritourism is something not everyone understands. It took years to get information to the teachers for field trips and longer to build the steady business. But now we have a great following from the schools and teachers who know us. It just took time.
I would also say to trust yourself and trust your staff. I should have just listened to my gut! So many things would have been better.
Lastly, you gotta get out there and talk to people – it is the only way to achieve the goals. I tend to be shy and had to get over that to get the business to grow. I need to talk to staff to hear their thoughts and ideas. I needed to talk to the teachers to get them to come to the farm. And I need to talk to customers to make them feel like a part of the Nickajack Family.
–NAFDMA – International Agritourism Association
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