HANCOCK COUNTY — Each fall, when the leaves start to change and the air turns cool and crisp, tens of thousands of visitors pour into Hancock County to enjoy a number of time-honored autumn traditions.
Sipping cider, picking pumpkins and wandering through a cornfield maze are all on the list of fun fall events the county has to offer.
Agritourism — in which commercial enterprises foster tourism through agriculture — is a longstanding draw in Hancock County, where destinations like Tuttle Orchards, Lark Ranch and Piney Acres all cater to those hoping to create some fun memories each fall.
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“While it’s hard to quantify, if I were to guess I’d say the county sees probably around 100,000 or more out-of-county visitors in the months of September and October,” said Brigette Jones, executive director of Hancock County tourism.
“As a county with a strong agricultural base, agritourism is really a good fit for the county,” she said.
For many families, a visit to an agritourism location may be one of the few “farm” experiences they will ever have, Jones said.
“In general, most people today are so far removed from where their food originates that it is good to get them to see and understand that process better,” she said.
Educating the public is one of the most satisfying parts of the job for Thomas Roney, a fourth-generation owner of Tuttle Orchards in Greenfield.
“Not everyone gets the chance to spend time out in the country, so it’s very cool being able to show them how corn grows out in the fields, how apples grow on the trees. They can walk out to the pumpkin patch and pick their own pumpkins. It teaches people a lot about where their food really comes from,” said Roney, who serves as production manager at the orchard.
Roney spends long hours each fall pressing apples into cider, which is snatched up by the gallon at the orchard’s store. He enjoys showing visitors and school groups exactly how the cider is made.
“A lot of people come out for their first time on field trips in the first or second grade, then they come back later with their own kids. It’s pretty exciting when that happens, when a second and third generation comes back to visit with their families,” he said.
Matt Lark, owner of Lark Ranch in Greenfield, also loves seeing multiple generations of families come out to enjoy the hayrides, pumpkin patch, corn maze and other fall activities at his sprawling farm on North Meridian Road on the western edge of Greenfield.
“The whole experience brings families together,” said Lark, who splits his time between Lark Ranch locations in Greenfield and Loogootee.
“We feel like what we offer is something the whole family can enjoy. It creates family memories that you just can’t get anywhere else,” he said.
“It gives children the chance to do something that doesn’t involve electronics. It gives a lot of people who are not used to coming out in the country a feeling for doing things outside, and lets them see how things grow,” said Lark, who runs the ranch with his three sons, Kyle, Adam and Eric.
The ranch does most of its business in September and October, when visitors flock to visit the general store and petting zoo, and take a ride on the train that travels around the outskirts of the back side of the ranch. This year, Lark added an 80-foot Ferris wheel to the mix.
Lark estimates that 70% of his guests come from outside Hancock County, which he tracks by ZIP codes tied to credit card purchases, and by chatting with customers as they buy tickets onsite.
“We get a lot of people from all around, especially Hamilton County,” he said.
Rex Zenor, who owns Piney Acres Farm in Fortville, guesses that roughly 60% of his customers come from outside Hancock County.
Roney said at least half of the visitors at Tuttle’s come from outside the county. “We get a lot of people from Fishers,” he said.
All three men are happy to help showcase what an agriculture gem Hancock County is, and are quick to encourage visitors to visit other parts of the county while they’re here.
Zenor encourages visitors from the north to visit historic downtown Fortville, and visitors from the south to visit Greenfield’s historic district.
“People often ask where they should stop and eat, so we typically send them there,” he said.
Jones said those extra stops at restaurants, shops, gas stations and sometimes hotels are a tremendous boon to Hancock County’s economy.
“When you bring in an extra 100,000 people or more into the county, they usually do more than just visit that one location. They may also eat at a local restaurant, they may buy gas at a local gas station, they may stop at another local shop or retail location,” she said.
“It means more people buying things in Hancock County, which employs more people at Hancock County businesses. Not to mention all the extra tax dollars that are coming from out-of-county pockets in sales tax, gas tax, and food and beverage tax. That tax revenue alone can generate a lot of income for the county’s infrastructure needs,” Jones said.
Lark believes many people who visit his ranch are so impressed with Greenfield, they make plans to come back at other times throughout the year.
“A lot of people say they drive through Greenfield and it’s so cute, they want to come back for Riley Days. They really like that mix of agriculture activities and businesses in the county,” he said. “The more people who come in and realize how pretty our county is, the more spending that will be done in the area.”
Lark opened the first lark Ranch in Loogootee in 2002, and opened the Greenfield location in 2008. He owns several farms throughout Hancock County, and has been farming locally since the mid-1970s.
Zenor started farming the 73-acre Piney Acres Farm in 1999, and started offering fall activities to the public in 2006. He added a haunted house in 2010.
It took a couple years for he and his wife, Janice, to get into the swing of running an agritourism destination, said Zenor.
“We didn’t know what we were doing at first,” he said with a chuckle.
Today, Piney Acres draws in an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 guests who come out to enjoy both kid-friendly activities and the Piney Acres Scream Farm, which features three haunted attractions — a hay loft, hayride and six-acre trail.
In November and December, visitors return to purchase fresh-cut Christmas trees.
Business has been particularly good this year, said Zenor, who has found that people have been especially upbeat and friendly. “I think everybody is fed up with being inside. They just want to come out and get some fresh air,” said Zenor, who lives on the farm.
Both the fall and winter operations have grown a little bit each year, he said. “Every year we try to keep adding stuff that the kids like,” he said.
At Tuttle’s, which is open year-round, the Roney family continues to welcome their biggest crowds throughout the fall.
Guests come by the carload and busload to enjoy apple cider slushies and chef-prepared meals at the cafe, while taking the chance to pick their own pumpkins and buy some locally made goods at the orchard’s store. There’s no apple picking this year, however, since most of the local crop was ruined by a late spring freeze.
Instead, the apples used to make Tuttle’s award-winning cider this year have come from outside vendors.
Roney is hopeful the orchard’s apple trees will be bursting with fruit this time next year. The family’s apple-growing tradition dates to 1928, when Roney’s great-grandfather planted the first apple tree there.
As the orchard grew the family focused on selling its apples wholesale, until a play area was added in the late 1970s, and the operation gradually grew into a thriving agritourism destination.
Today it’s run by Roney, his sister Ruth Ann Roney, and their parents, Mike and Helen Roney.
Jones is thankful for them and all the other farmers who make Hancock County so appealing to families seeking to make fabulous fall memories.
“Tuttle’s Orchard, Piney Acres, and Lark Ranch are great county attractions that have a past record of bringing in thousands of tourists every year,” she said.
“We know that these locations bring many visitors from outside of the county for a destination experience as evidenced by the followers on their social media, and the commentary on their review pages. The events these locations have and the attractions themselves are what brings visitors to the county who wouldn’t come otherwise,” she said.
“People are looking for that harvest time experience with a farm flavor, which is exactly what they provide.”
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Agritourism is a term that defines where tourism and agriculture intersect. It encompasses commercial enterprises that link agricultural production and/or processing with tourism by entertaining or educating visitors while generating income for a farm, ranch or business owner.
Here’s more information on Hancock County’s agritourism destinations:
1611 N. Meridian Road
Piney Acres Farm
1115 E. 1000 North
5717 N. 300 West