Agri-tourism key for Patterson Farm

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 9, 2011

By Linda BaileyMiller Davis Agency
One day, in the midst of one of the many, many tours that Michelle Patterson directs in the growing agri-tourism business at her family farm, she asked the children a simple question:
“What does a cow say?”
And a child said: “Eat more ‘chickin.’ ”
Michelle stops to let that sink in.
Cute? Maybe. But also very wrong. A cow says “moo.” Always has and always will.
But children are losing out when it comes to learning about farms and what they mean to this country, something that Michelle and others like her who promote agri-tourism are trying to reverse.
“That child had never had the experience of seeing an actual cow,” says Michelle. “We have a lot of education to do. We want to change the perception of children that everything is just there at the grocery store É like the grocery store makes those tomatoes in the back of the store.”
The educational factor is a side effect of the diversification of the family farm with the addition of agri-tourism, but to a supporter of education like Michelle, it has become a key to the work that she does.
Patterson Farm, a 1,000-acre third-generation business located in southwestern Rowan County, has been in the agri-tourism business for 16 years. It started shortly after Michelle, who married into the family and brought a business/marketing degree with her, left her job and began working at the farm full time.
“Diversification is another way for farms to have a source of income,” she says. “At that time, we had had a decline in the pick-your-own business. It used to be that people would come out and pick 20 gallons of strawberries and make their own jam. Then, society was changing and people didn’t have the time. More people were eating fast food. We were trying to get people to come back out. And we were getting requests for groups that wanted to come.”
In 1994, Patterson Farm started its tours and entertained 400 visitors. Since then, the tours and programs have grown, with a children’s summer program called “Learn and Grow Discovery Farm” added this year.
Last year, 25,000 visited, many of them elementary school children, pre-schoolers, church groups, people from retirement centers and Scouts. On the school tours, children pick strawberries in the spring, tomatoes in the summer and early fall and pumpkins in the fall until November. They ride wagons through the fields to learn about irrigation and soil conditions, are educated at a puppet show in the barn theater about the importance of farming, feed the farm animals and visit the farm-themed playground.
They take educational activity books back to their classrooms, as well as seeds that they have planted and will nourish.
“Kids love hands-on activities,” says Michelle. “It’s a joy for them to come back and tell me how many green beans they grew on their plant.”
There are special weekend events that draw families, and with all this activity, the agri-tourism staff grows to 50 during peak times.
Michelle has worked with educators so that events such as the Dirt-on-Dirt tour and the N.C. Farm History tour meet N.C. Course of Study curriculum standards.
The new summer program involves children “working” on the farm, feeding animals, gathering (artificial) eggs, milking an (artificial) cow, and harvesting (artificial) strawberries and tomatoes. They take their harvest to the market, sort the produce into bins for sale, and are given Patterson Farm “bucks” for buying fruit or ice cream in the market.
Michelle is a generator of ideas, and Patterson Farm’s success has others reaching out to her. She is chairman of the Rowan Tourism Development Authority, serves on the Salisbury Tourism Authority and is a member of the N.C. Agri-Tourism Networking Association and the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association. Recently, she was a speaker and panelist on planning tours/events and training employees at a Tennessee Agri-Tourism conference.
Meanwhile as winter on the farm gives way to spring, management is gearing up in all of its endeavors – from the wholesale farm operation where crops range from tomatoes to a variety of peppers; to re-pack, where produce is re-packaged for grocery shelves; to landscaping; to its retail market stocked with farm-fresh produce; to the tours. This diversification is the Pattersons’ plan for their future and that of their children.
In the last decade, farms have been going under at a rapid pace, Michelle says. “Farms have been sold to developers, and once a farm is gone, it’s gone,” she says. “We hope to keep farming sustainable for ourselves and others, and we hope that we can inspire children to possibly make farming a career choice. It’s absolutely a good way of life.”Learn more about the Patterson Farm strawberry, tomato, pumpkin, farm history, geocaching and dirt-on-dirt tours at