Brian Houchin had no knowledge of agriculture or farming until he found himself owning a dozen alpacas.

Houchin and his wife, Karley, purchased their six-acre farm in Heyworth in 2009 after he found out about it when his children visited on a field trip. 

“Honesty, until sometime in the winter of 2008 when I started researching the animals, I didn’t know what an alpaca was,” said Houchin of the animals that are members of the camel family, similar to llamas and native to South America. Their fleece is purchased in its raw form by hand-spinners and fiber artists; knitters buy it as yarn.

Houchin’s operation highlights a growing trend in specialty farming businesses and agritourism destinations. Agriculture destinations have become an economic generator for farmers and rural communities.

Agritourism and recreational services generated about $566 million in the U.S. in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. That includes an economic impact of nearly $12 million in Illinois, a jump from about $4 million in 2002.

Agritourism encompasses a range of ventures, everything from bed and breakfasts to fruit and vegetable picking areas and farmers markets that people can visit, learn the process of producers, find local products and participate in family activities.

“I think it’s partly related to the social media phenomenon where everyone is connected. You can post something on Facebook and 1,000 people know about it and can plan for it,” said Bill Davison, extension educator for small farms and local foods for the University of Illinois Extension in McLean, Woodford and Livingston counties. 

Davison said specialty food producers and small farm operations have noticed a spike over the last decade in community members interested in visiting their farms to learn about agriculture.

“I think a lot of people are interested in learning about where their food comes from and who is growing it,” Davison said. 

Houchin, who has a full-time job as a manager with Bratcher Heating and Air Conditioning, manages the farm on the side, with help from family members.

Although the alpaca’s fleece is valuable, Houchin intends to focus on breeding the animals to sell to start-up operations and other alpaca farms. The farm also sells merchandise made from the animals’ fleece. 

Visitors can see the farm by appointment or can attend events throughout the year. 

Grapes galore

White Oak Vineyards is another destination business that evolved naturally, much like the grapes grown on the farm.

Rudi and Mary Hofmann returned to the Midwest from Germany in 1999. They bought a small farm and grew corn and soybeans. After a few years, they decided to change course and planted grapes with the intention of selling the fruit to wineries.

“We ended up making wine out of our own grapes,” Mary Hofmann said of the vineyard, located at 8621 East 2100 North Road in Carlock.

They now have a dozen grape varietals and about 15 types of wine. In 2011, the Hofmanns opened a tasting room on the farm, which they intend to expand. Their wine is sold at the winery, online and at Friar Tuck in Bloomington for about $16-$18 per bottle.

“I think people don’t necessarily think our product is an agriculture product, but it is. It just ends up in a different type of bottle,” she said. “We are really, truly a small, mom and pa boutique winery. We are so hands on and every bottle is touched three to four times by the time we’re done with it.”

Wine production in Illinois increased by 16 percent from 2006 to 2011 — from 564,270 gallons in 2006 to 651,800 gallons in 2011. The number of wineries in the state has also increased by 36 percent during that time, from 77 wineries in 2006 to 105 wineries in 2011, according to the most recent numbers from the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association.

Pumpkin profits

Meanwhile, about seven miles south of the Carlock winery at Rader Family Farms, 1238 Ropp Road, Normal, business has increased each year since 2009, when the family decided to turn an informal business selling pumpkins into an agriculture destination that attracts 50,000 people during its short two-month season. The family also operates a more traditional crop farm.

Lynn Rader began growing pumpkins and had bumper crop that he sold to friends and family members for many years. In 2009, after they realized there was a business opportunity there, the family built a barn and the farm expanded into a popular fall destination, bringing in 15,000 people its first season.

“I think people are craving family activities and they want not only activities, they want a family experience,” said Adam Rader, son of Lynn and Linda Rader, who oversees project development and general operations on the farm.

The Raders have three married children and eight grandchildren. Their children and spouses are all involved on some level with the pumpkin operation. Along with the family members, the farm employed about 90 part-time workers last year, more than double the amount when they started in 2009.

About 5,000 children from area elementary schools have visited the farm, Adam Rader said.

“It helps kids unplug from the electronics, get out and get dirty and see the farm and learn where the things they eat come from,” he said. 

Buzzing business

Joe Sibley, another self-taught agriculture expert, keeps swarms of bees in his Normal backyard and several other places. He produces honey and sells it locally.

Pests and diseases have led to a decrease in the number of wild honeybees, increasing the need for more domestic apiaries.

Today, he’s among about 2,500 registered beekeepers in Illinois; the number jumped 38 percent last year compared to 2012, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Specialty crop growers across the state depend on bees to pollinate their crops and many have hired beekeepers to help with pollinating, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Though Sibley doesn’t host tours, he is part of the Illinois State University Beekeeping Club that frequently has apiary tours and participates in beekeeping workshops about twice a year for those interested.

Sibley’s honey is made from his 18 bee colonies. Each bee colony includes one queen and about 60,000 drones and worker bees.

It is available at Naturally Yours Grocery in, Normal. He has also sold his honey at various local agriculture events and expos.

“About one-third of all food comes from crops that are pollinated by bees. That’s something I don’t think people aren’t aware of,” Sibley said. “I think people are becoming more aware of how important bees are.”

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