COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — If you've ever picked your own apples or bumped along on a hayride, you've taken part in agritourism.
But the concept has grown up as more people want to learn about their food. That's led to local-food meals served in the middle of sunflower fields and classes on making cheese from goat milk.
It's about relationships, said Rob Leeds, an Ohio State University Extension educator and pumpkin farmer who offers activities such as horse-drawn hayrides at his farm in Ostrander.
"Picking your own food, knowing where it comes from, and hopefully while you are out there meeting the farmer — it all develops a sense of trust for who's raising your food," Leeds said.
No matter what form it takes, agritourism is growing in Ohio, said Julie Fox, a direct-marketing specialist at OSU Extension. More farmers are inviting consumers to buy baskets of seasonal produce, help make maple syrup or learn how to can fruits and vegetables.
"People want unique food experiences," said Fox, who leads a statewide team that is beginning to collect marketing and agritourism data. Close proximity to farms also is fueling agritourism growth, Leeds said.
In Ohio, farm income from agritourism and recreational services more than doubled to nearly $5 million in 2007 from $2.2 million in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's five-year farm census. Agritourism grew to 2.1 percent of farm income in 2007 from 1.4 percent in 2002.
It took Val Jorgensen a long time to accept the "tourism" aspect of agritourism. "This is definitely not Disney World," Jorgensen said about her 65-acre Jorgensen Farms in Westerville, which she sees more as an education hub than a tourist trap.
"What I want to share with people is what real food is," said Jorgensen, who grew up on a Michigan dairy farm. "My degree's in nursing. So my focus is on health and sharing the process of growing healthy food."
Jorgensen raises sheep, which provide wool, pelts and meat. She keeps bees, producing several herb-infused raw honeys. She grows fruits, vegetables and herbs and sells them to local food companies and restaurants. But hosting events from school tours to organization dinners to weddings "does balance the budget," she said.
Her Sunday Supper series features seasonal produce and meats grown on her farm or other farms just outside of Columbus, prepared by local chefs and served in a barn or sunflower field. Dinner tickets usually sell for between $58 and $75.
"I want to provide a place for people to be nourished," said Jorgensen, who sees herself as a steward, not an owner, of the land. "It warms my heart and soul to see people come out to the farm."
Visitors to Orchard Hill Bed & Breakfast can feed the animals — including donkeys, pot-bellied pigs, llamas and alpacas — while staying at the 1850 farmhouse near Granville.
"The latest count is 72, if you count all the chickens and other fowl," said Don Jones, who owns the B&B with Andrew Kohn. The three suites at Orchard Hill go for between $95 and $155 a night.
Jones and Kohn feature local foods and products, including Gambier Gold honey and Tilton Hollow goat milk soap, at their B&B. Kohn makes jams, which are served to lodgers and sold online and at a few local stores.
The B&B operators cooperate with local shop keepers and wineries to create package deals. "Wineries can be a hook" to attract well-heeled tourists, said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.
Slate Run Vineyard in Canal Winchester doesn't do tours, but it does offer wine tastings and use of its "weinhaus" for events of up to 125 people. Owner Keith Prichard charges between $150 and $550 for weinhaus rental, he said.
At Soine Vineyard in Powell, volunteers do much of the grape-picking in exchange for a good meal and glass of wine, said co-owner Sandy Sainey.
Mockingbird Meadows between Plain City and Marysville connects visitors with healing herbs, sustainable beekeeping, homesteaders' dinners and the spirit of the farm, said co-owner Dawn Combs.
Combs and her husband, Carson Combs, recently hosted a troop of Girl Scouts from Bailey Elementary School in Dublin for herbal facials and a tour of the couple's biodiverse farm.
"We like to do things with the girls twice a month," said Tala Rogers of Dublin, one of the moms at the facial table. "A lot of our girls are familiar with dairy farms. This is an herb farm, so they're learning how to use herbs for health and beauty."
Dawn Combs infuses honey from the farm's bees with herbs to create healing spreads. Three Mockingbird Meadows products are poised for national distribution.
"It's very difficult to live off a farm," Dawn Combs said. "If we were just to be honey producers, we could not support our family. We diversify our honey, and we diversify our herbs." Regular events also bring in income, she said.
At Blue Rock Station in Philo, home of the "Earthship" — a house made of mud, scrapped tires and other recycled materials — Jay and Annie Warnke teach visitors how to make goat-milk cheese and use mud to plaster walls and build structures.
Visitors can trek surrounding hills with llamas, finishing their journey with a "proper English tea," or they can stay a night in two cabins made of recyclables, said Annie Warnke. The Warnkes have written a dozen books on sustainable farming, based on nearly two decades of experience.
"For me, it's a whole way of life, every step you take," said Annie Warnke, who started out in a corporation, not on a farm. "The gross domestic product of Blue Rock Station is happiness."
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com