by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
When Shannon Stanton-Helms of Water Wheel Farm was involved in an ATV accident, leaving her with a fractured neck, it not only left her strapped physically, it left her and her family strapped financially.
The Trout Creek, Delaware County teacher and early intervention provider and her contractor husband, George, had only recently started up a small beef farm on 70 acres of property and were struggling as it was to make ends meet for their family of four small children.
“When we bought the farm there wasn’t a single fence post on the property,” recalls Shannon.
With a bit of brainstorming, Shannon decided diversification on their farm through Agritourism could be the answer to their dilemma.
“We were traveling down to New York City to sell our meat at farmers’ markets and a lot of our customers wanted to come up and see the farm,” explained Shannon. “We had a lot of red tape to work through, and it was slowing up our process and construction, but I contacted people, became familiar with their names and went to meetings, which not only benefited us, but helped other farmers going through the same process, as well.”
Water Wheel Farm is involved with the farm easement program and Shannon found herself facing long periods of time waiting for board decisions to be made.
“I had to speak to the board of supervisors for New York City watershed to explain why farmers cannot wait for the time and red tape that politics often require.”
“Part of the reason I signed up for the farm easement was so that it would enable me to continue farming,” Shannon explained. “But a lot of the decisions I make here on the farm have to meet with their approval. They will either give me permission — or not. These unmade decisions were a detriment to my farm, my family and my developing business.”
Before speaking directly to the board face-to-face, Shannon says decisions for her farm — and other farms — were being put on future agendas for discussion months down the road.
As many of the board members were farmers, Shannon likened their decisions to a decision concerning culling a non-nursing cow. “I said to them, ‘My cow freshened and she just walked away from her calf. What do I do? Do I wait 60 or 90 days to make a decision? The same thing happens if you have a cow with mastitis and she keeps getting mastitis after mastitis, getting your whole tank dirty, what are you going to do?’ I think speaking to them on their level helped them to understand exactly what I was talking about.”
“The board voted ‘yes’ after their executive session, to all six farmers waivers that were discussed that day. Great news for this program and small farmers.”
The most recent decision that has been made concerns camping at Water Wheel Farm.
“I wanted to put up a tent, so people could come here and go camping and experience the farm.”
The farm has now been allowed to put up tee-pees, which Shannon calls glamorous camping — or “glamping.” George built them up on platforms so they are not directly on the ground and has recently installed outdoor restrooms with shower facilities for both men and ladies to make the experience even more comfortable for city dwellers.
“This is going to bring income to our farm. People will come here and pay to have a lesson on a horse or help do chores or feed a flake of hay to a sheep. And to people who don’t get to do that everyday, that is a huge deal!”
Some of the first visitors to the tee-pees were a troop of 20 Girl Scouts from Manhattan. The group even had cooking lessons while they were camped there. Thanks to Shannon’s background in teaching, she was able to put together a curriculum keeping the girls involved in activities for two full days, with the goal of earning 10 badges. Besides cooking, activities included hiking, fishing and horseback riding.
“They had a wonderful time!”
Shannon calls the farm business a “Farm Stay Getaway,” and has future plans to incorporate retreats and even events, such as weddings, into the farm’s agenda.
In the meantime, Water Wheel has expanded their meat market into five farmers markets and selling beef, pork and lamb.
Advertising is by word of mouth, pamphlets, internet and some publications.
“I advertise a lot on social media. I try to post two or three times a week. I try to make it unique and I try to make it about ‘Farm Family’. I add hash-tags, such as ‘old fashioned’, ‘farm stay’, ‘mom’s life’, ‘kids life’, ‘farm life’, ‘farm family’, ‘real eggs’, ‘green eggs’, and what ever comes to my mind.”
Shannon says she thinks farmers should invite people to the farm.
“I think transparency is key and I think supporting your local community is very big.”
Shannon says their farm is very community oriented and recently donated 200 pounds of ground beef to a local BOCES school, which in turn generated an offer for them to bid on supplying beef for school lunches next year.
But, for now Agritourism is booming. And Shannon holds a piece of advice for other farmers.
“You need to let people come to your farm to see your farm, charge them for that, and continue doing what you are doing,” she advises. “It’s not a big deal.”
Find Water Wheel Farm at www.waterwheelfarmny.com/.
“We’re reinventing the wheel!” laughs Shannon.
Agritourism keeps the wheels turning at Water Wheel Farm
by Elizabeth A. Tomlin