(BPT) - With less than 2% of the U.S. population involved in farming and ranching, many are unaware of their food's backstory. Noticing the gap, Chad and Jeana Steiner decided to launch their own agritourism destination in Washington to make a difference.
When the Steiners purchased an empty lot a couple hours east of Seattle in Chelan, Washington, they saw an opportunity to realize their dream of providing agricultural education. Eight years later, the land hosts a flourishing farm where visitors learn how food goes from farm to fork and wine flows from grape to glass.
The seed of an idea
Love for agriculture is central to the Steiners' relationship. They met in their National FFA Organization (FFA) chapter and both enjoy working outdoors. Between undergraduate and graduate school, Chad worked for Ste. Michelle Winery, where he first got the idea to start his own vineyard. He also grew his agricultural knowledge during his 12-year tenure with Syngenta.
In 2014, the Steiners moved from Sacramento, California, and bought property in Washington to open their own vineyard.
"With Chad traveling for Syngenta, touring apple orchards and seeing every farm culture on a mass and small scale, we began to understand how disconnected people are from farming," said Jeana. With this in mind, the Steiners looked beyond running a traditional vineyard toward creating a space where people could reconnect to farming.
The Steiners' three young boys inspired the farm's next expansion. After relocating to Chelan, the couple looked for family fun as Halloween approached. When they discovered the nearest pumpkin patch was over an hour away, they saw an opportunity.
"I talked to Erin Moran, the local principal, and did an experiment with the fourth graders," said Jeana. "They helped us plant the pumpkin seeds, and the following fall, they all came back to pick out a pumpkin."
The pumpkin patch is now in its fourth year. Since then, the Steiners added U-Pick apples and U-Pick flowers to the farm activities. "Last season, there was a grandma with her granddaughter who was so excited to pick an apple for the first time. It was amazing to see a memory they will be able to share forever," said Jeana.
As business on the farm increased, visitors expressed interest in learning what happens behind the scenes. With a focus on education, the Steiners began free public farm tours that typically included about 30 people.
"We tailor the tour to what's going on with the farm at the time," said Chad. "I like to wrap these discussions into the big picture of why growers do certain things, such as apple thinning." Apple thinning, he explains, helps produce a certain size of apple.
Through Airbnb and VBRO, the Steiners made their guest house available to visitors who want to stay on a working farm. Tourists from California to England have visited the property. "I was honestly blown away by the interest of people that wanted to come and stay," said Jeana.
"Chad is really well-versed in winemaking," says Connor Flanagan, a visitor at Chelan Valley Farms. "The knowledge he brings to the table is invaluable, and it's super interesting to hear the story behind the grapes."
In light of their success with the vineyard, the couple was able to finally fulfill their other agricultural dream by opening Lagrioth Winery, named after the combination of the words "lake," "agritourism" and "growth."
For growers interested in agritourism, the Steiners say a crucial first step is deciding whether it will be a hobby or a main income source. Chad stresses the importance of determining input costs, time involved and which crops and agritourism operations can drive revenue.
Once you have a customer base, knowing how to grow it is critical. For the Steiners, promotional efforts were key to growing their customer base and the farm's success. Social media, local media and the Chamber of Commerce weekly bulletins are important marketing tools for the Steiners.
Jeana adds that having an experienced mentor was helpful. Niki Allision, a local farmer who sells flowers, helped mentor the Steiners when they were getting started. The Steiners now mentor others.
"I had someone call a few days ago who has property but just doesn't know how to get started," says Jeana. "He asked if he could come on the farm tour and see behind the scenes with our animals."
Like all growers, the Steiners experience times of hardship. "There have been days where we wonder how we are going to do this," says Jeana. "It's just Chad and me. We don't have outside investors. We hope to carry this forward and make a difference in people's lives."