Farms roll out welcome mat for fall agritourism season
The leaves are turning and a familiar crispness is in the air. Trucks laden with produce share the roads and fields are turning over for the season.It’s the height of harvest, Halloween is approaching, and folks are eager to get in the fall mood.
Agritourism peaks this time of year with farmers markets and u-pick produce.
“What’s different than other ag areas is our growing season is longer so there are more crops,” said Kim Shugart, senior vice president of Visit Tri-Cities, the region’s tourism promotion bureau.
“We’re just wrapping up peach season, and there are still lots of fruits and veggies.”
While the harvest is diverse and abundant, so too are the activities to celebrate the fruits of local fields.
For many Tri-Citians, it wouldn’t be autumn without a trip to the fall festivals offered at Middleton Farms or Country Mercantile, both in Pasco.
The venues offer their own homegrown takes on farm tourism.
Both started as much humbler versions of their current business models. Each retains the goal of getting people out to experience farms and rural culture.
Visitors can take part in classic fall farm activities such as tractor rides, choosing a pumpkin, getting lost in expansive corn mazes (or straw bale mazes for little kids), snacking on seasonally-inspired comfort food (how does a caramel apple cider float sound?), taking farm-themed photos, playing low-tech games and more.
“My oldest brother had a dream to get people and kids out on the farm to see a different way of life. We wanted families to experience something different,” said Mark Middleton, managing partner at Middleton Farms.
Country Mercantile, which also operates a store in Richland, had a similar goal, said owner Jay Wood.
“We wanted to bring the farm to the city for all people to get a feel for what it’s like to be out here and see crops growing.
“It gives people the opportunity to make a connection with the food they eat and that it’s actually grown … and that maybe agriculture is kind of an important industry – but only for those who like to eat,” he said.
Middleton and Wood both come from farming backgrounds. Middleton grew up on his parents’ 50-acre hay and asparagus farm at 1050 Pasco-Kahlotus Road.
Wood is still a farmer and back then grew raspberries, potatoes, asparagus, apples and cherries near Basin City. He started Country Mercantile to sell produce. In 1996, he bought the former roadside antique shop at 232 Crestloch Road off Highway 395.
“It gave me a small avenue to go direct to the consumer with my produce,” he said.
Only the frontmost portion of the present-day building existed then. He sold produce from a tent.
They held a small harvest festival with rides to the pumpkin patch and farm tours the first year.
Wood said that all you see today is a direct result of Country Mercantile’s response to customer requests over the years.
Middleton Farms was established on land bought in 1974 from BNSF Railway by Mark’s father.
The family ventured into agritourism 10 years ago when they started a pumpkin patch and opened the hay barn to the public.
Both businesses are community-driven offshoots of the greater ethos of farming, which serves the ultimate purpose of feeding and providing raw materials for the world and connecting people through the trade of those goods.
Agritourism lends a new dimension: providing an experience.
“Tri-Cities is exploding. There are tons of new families who want something to do, so our culture is shifting from (buying and owning) stuff to experience … that’s what we’ve created here is an experience. We’ve been able to capitalize on that culture shift of ‘I want to have more memories and fun in my life,’” Middleton said.
Middleton and Country Mercantile both draw visitors primarily from the Pacific Northwest. Many travel several hours for the experience.
“People are trying to establish a connection with the farm community,” Wood said.
Though agritourism is experiencing a resurgence, many people in larger metropolitan areas are still hard-pressed to find farm excursions. Traveling to Eastern Washington provides a fully immersive experience in the food production system.
“This time of the year there is an amazing amount of food on the roads,” Wood said. “Potatoes, carrots, onions, alfalfa, sweet corn … You can see the growth around here because of food. More food production plants are going up to accommodate growth in the farming community. You can see and smell the grapes this time of year. You can’t drive on these roads without seeing food grown or being hauled to the processor or to the market.”
Visit Tri-Cities supports agritourism as part of its mission to promote the region as a tourism destination. Tourism was worth $480 million to the local economy in 2021 and is on track in 2022 to beat the record set in 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We are very fortunate in our community because we do have such a strong ag influence … we have a very vibrant economy that’s tied to city atmosphere type things, but we also have the ag component,” Shugart said.
She pointed out that other smaller farms and wineries throughout the area also ring in the harvest with festivities and some local farmers markets run through October.
Wood said there’s another aspect of harvest festivals that appeal to folks: “It’s become a bigger thing because it gives opportunities to families and younger kids to get away from their phones and computers and do some hands-on recreation and just have fun.”
Middleton Farms reports seeing almost 100,000 guests per season. Some individual days have recorded 10,000 visitors alone. It employs 300 people to staff the fall festival. For many, it’s their first paid job.
Middleton said his family almost pulled the plug on the fall festival after the first four years when revenue fell short of expenses.
“It was for the community first, so we persevered. And then, year five, it turned … Business is about risk. Business is about having a vision and believing in yourself, even if you’re not seeing the success in the numbers,” he said.
Since then, Middleton Farms tries to add four or five new attractions each year.
Wood said Country Mercantile continues to add on as well. New this year is Glitter Creek Mining Camp where visitors can mine for gems.
Both farms have expanded beyond fall. Middleton Farms now hosts asparagus, strawberry and sunflower festivals when each is in season.
Country Mercantile is an all-year-round business that sells fresh produce, as well as canned goods and other pantry items manufactured locally and abroad. It offers a made-to-order food counter, deli, chocolate factory, homemade ice cream, décor shop as well.
In 2014, Wood opened a second Country Mercantile at 5015 Ava Way in Richland’s Badger South area, off Interstate 82. It doesn’t host a harvest festival at this location.
232 Crestloch Road, Pasco; 509-545-2192, countrymercantile.com; Hours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Sunday year-round. The Harvest Festival runs 10 a.m.-7 p.m. during the week and 9 a.m.-7 p.m. weekends through Oct. 31. Admission is $10.95 during the week and $11.95 during the weekend. Some additional activities are extra.
1050 Pasco Kahlotus Road, Pasco; 509-547-5668: middletonfarms.com. The Fall Festival runs noon-6 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 30. Admission is $15.95 Thursday-Friday and $18.95 during the weekend. Some additional activities are extra.