The Van Trump Report

The Bootstrap Origins of America’s Agritourism Industry

There is something a little magical and distinctly American about a Fall afternoon spent picking apples and other fruits of the season. And many would argue there is no place better to fully enjoy the changing of the seasons than the countryside. I always assumed this tradition dated back to the earliest days of agriculture, and to some degree that is true. But the popularity of the “pick-your-own” (PYO) business model actually sprang from the desperate circumstances that America’s farmers faced during the Depression.

The modern form of PYO does trace back to Victorian era Britain. In the 19th century, a few enterprising fresh market operators in and around London regularly promoted country outings to their rural fields where city dwellers could go pick bushels of vegetables to take back home while also enjoying home-cooked farm meals.

At the turn of the in the U.S., some apple growers in New Jersey and New York advertised country outings of picking and picnicking among the fruit trees, while a handful of citrus orchards in California promoted similar excursions. However, they weren’t exactly thriving businesses as most of America still did live in rural areas. It really wasn’t until the 1920s when the majority of Americans lived in cities for the first time and the price of the Ford Model T became affordable to the masses that these concepts became economically viable.

Keep in mind, while folks in cities were thriving amid the financial boom of the 1920s, America’s farmers found themselves struggling. During World War I, crop production levels increased exponentially to help meet the unprecedented demand. But when the war ended in 1918, production levels remained elevated even as demand at home and abroad sank. The situation was exacerbated by advances in livestock and plant sciences that further boosted surpluses. Plummeting crop prices made it difficult if not impossible for farmers to pay the loans they’d taken out to expand their operations during the war.

Then in 1929, the stock market crashed and all of America entered the Great Depression, along with most of the world. Between 1929 and 1932, worldwide gross domestic product (GDP) fell by an estimated -15%. Personal income, tax revenue, profits, and prices dropped, while international trade fell by more than -50%. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 23% and in some countries rose as high as 33%. Farming communities and rural areas suffered as crop prices fell by about -60%.

By 1932, fed up farmers in Iowa, Minnesota, and elsewhere were threatening to strike. In Wisconsin, cherry growers in Door County, the top cherry producer in the country at the time, were trying to figure out how to save both their harvest as well as their livelihoods. Local canneries wouldn’t guarantee prices high enough to cover the cost of production. Orchard owners couldn’t stomach letting the fruit rot on the vines, however, so devised a plan to sell directly to consumers.

Newspapers and radio broadcasts were soon plastered with ads for “Cherries at a penny a pound. Pick them yourself.” Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, distinguished professor of history and department chair at Iowa State University, explains that fruit in those days was a luxury. “What those fruit farmers are trying to do is desperately find a market for something that is not on anybody’s list of absolute requirements.” And it was an undeniable success – people paid to pick over 100,000 pounds of fruit that opening weekend.

News of the success spread and other orchards got busy setting up their own “pick-your-own” operations. According to reports from the time, that first season saw one orchard record 10,000 visitors from 130 towns within driving distance. Overall, it generated an economic boom for Wisconsin orchard owners to the tune of $25,000, or around half a million in today’s dollars. The orchards only upped their efforts the following year. Pick-your-own advertisements launched in places such as Green Bay and Milwaukee (then the 12th most populous city in America) with messages that entwined affordable fruit with leisure: “Give your family an outing” and “Take a vacation.”

The PYO fad seemed to fade with the Depression in most areas of the country but saw a sudden resurgence in the 1980s amid declining prices for most agricultural commodities that again forced farmers to seek new ways to market their products. PYOs sprung up in ever greater numbers with some farmers not only able to charge more than wholesale bulk prices for their products, but also selling other farm-fresh foods and souvenirs directly to their picking customers.  

Today, PYOs still flourish with crops that require considerable harvest labor like most tree fruits, berries, and vegetables. There has also been great success with flowers, which are especially labor intensive. And of course, we can’t forget the classic pumpkin patch and timeless cut-your-own Christmas tree farms. All of these concepts have helped create the newer forms of agritourism we have today that include corn mazes, sleigh rides, horseback riding, petting zoos, wedding and events spaces, bed and breakfasts, and numerous other farm-centric businesses.

The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture recently launched a new app dedicated to connecting agritourism venues with consumers. The American Farm Trail app — created by the Foundation and sponsored by Corteva — allows farmers, ranchers and farm attraction managers to sign up for free to showcase their agritourism venues. Farms and attractions can create a profile promoting their business, history, available products and more. Consumers using the app will be able to connect directly with local farms by searching area, type of attraction, or products for sale. The Foundation plans to launch the app in the spring of 2022. Resources are available to farmers interested in listing their farm on the app, including a video overview of the app and a how-to guide for filling out the attraction listing information. Check it out HERE. (Sources:, National Geographic, Wikipedia)

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