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Arizona farms turn to petting zoos, corn mazes, concerts and festivals to survive

From petting zoos and hayrides to corn mazes and concerts, some farms in Arizona are opening their gates to the public with farm-based entertainment to diversify revenue and stay in business.

Across the U.S., over 50,000 farms report at least a portion of their income comes from what’s known as “agritainment,” according to Penn State Extension.

“Agritainment creates the opportunity for farm owners to entice visitors to their farm, provide education about agriculture and increase their overall profits,” Lynn Kime, a senior extension associate, said in Penn State News. “The concept offers hope for small, struggling farms.”

Farm revenue in Arizona has been on a rollercoaster for years. In 2019, Arizona farms’ net income was about $1.4 billion. In 2020, that dropped to $582 million, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture, in part because of disruptions related to the pandemic.

Arizona has about 19,000 farms, including Schnepf Farms and Queen Creek Olive Mill, both in Queen Creek, Vertuccio Farms in Mesa and Tolmachoff Farms in Gilbert – all of which now offer various agritainment experiences.

Mother Nature’s Farm in Gilbert is among those that have evolved to survive. It originated as a pig farm, started selling Christmas trees in the 1980s, and has kept growing and changing ever since.

When owner Wade Kelsall took over the family farm in 1988, he planted fruit trees and soon started selling pumpkins. Then customers asked to see behind the scenes, and offered money to do so, prompting Kelsall to further expand into agritainment.

The farm now features a petting zoo, hayride and tractor graveyard – all part of a fall festival that runs throughout Oct. 31. After Halloween, the property transforms for its Snow Day With Santa event and Christmas tree lot.

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“Ninety-plus percent of our income is in October, and then we have December, and the rest of the year we are pretty much growing for those seasons and growing to feed our animals,” Kelsall said.

Many families, like Lawrence McKinney’s, come to Mother Nature’s Farm so their children can be exposed to a lifestyle they can’t find in suburbia.

“My kids like to pet the animals and feed the animals,” he said. “I also come for the pumpkin patch and the Christmas tree lot.”

Kelsall said the agritainment-style of farming provides a space for kids to learn about farming and where food comes from.

“Kids learn better by doing,” he said. “Kids come out here, learn where eggs come from … learn where the milk comes from … learn that things don’t come from the grocery store.”

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Kevin Hurley/Cronkite News

Wade Kelsall, owner of Mother Nature’s Farm in Gilbert, feeds his goats. Feeding the farmyard animals is one of the property’s most popular attractions.