In 2006, Tim Fitzgerald had the idea of turning his dad’s Tippecanoe County, Ind., farm into something bigger.
“My dad got sick and had put a roof on one of our buildings,” Fitzgerald says. “He didn’t know how he was going to pay to repair it. That is when I got the idea of agritourism. I pitched the idea to my dad; he could see the potential.”
Fitzgerald’s idea would come to fruition two years later as Exploration Acres. It has become the place for agritourism in Tippecanoe County.
It was a family affair to get Exploration Acres to be what it is today. Fitzgerald went into business with his sister Mary Bransetter. Fitzgerald is president and CEO of Exploration Acres, and Bransetter is vice president.
Exploration Acres started in 2008 with six employees and a 15-acre corn maze. It had 13,000 visitors in its first season. The enterprise now has 105 employees and an 18-acre corn maze, and will welcome an estimated 55,000 to 60,000 visitors this season.
Exploration Acres partners with Brevant, a new seed brand from Corteva Agriscience that supplies the seed and chemicals for the corn maze.
The owners of Exploration Acres want visitors to the farm to be able to see a side of agriculture they may have never experienced. That is the inspiration behind the slogan “Fields to Discover.” Fitzgerald explains this doesn’t just mean walking through fields and discovering — it means experiencing all the fields of agriculture.
Why agritourism matters
Less than 2% of the population is directly involved in agriculture today. A Purdue University professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Maria Marshall, says agritourism is important right now.
“Many people are very removed from where their food comes from,” Marshall says.
At Exploration Acres, the goal is for customers to see the stages of corn growth and learn about raising pumpkins from the farm’s patch. They want people simply to experience what it feels like to be on the farm.
“We also want people to be exposed to farm heritage,” Fitzgerald says. “There is a lot of history here.”
The corn maze offers field trips to educate kids in Tippecanoe County. During a normal operating season, the farm hosts 500 to 600 kids a day, three times a week.
Throughout the years, Exploration Acres has developed relationships with Netflix by creating a “Stranger Things” theme maze, and with Purdue through a “150 Years of Giant Leaps” maze, playing off the institution’s sesquicentennial campaign.
“I told my family, ‘We are going to start this business, but after the first year, we will start to build relationships with other companies,’” Fitzgerald says.
He notes that building relationships with these larger businesses shows the farm’s professionalism to the public, and especially to customers. The companies also supply resources to Exploration Acres. Because of these extra resources, Exploration Acres can then invest in other parts of the enterprise in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before.
Exploration Acres is located on Highway 52 at 6042 Newcastle Road, Lafayette, Ind. It is open from mid-September until the closest weekend to Halloween.
From family farm to agritourism destination
Fitzgerald looks back on his family’s journey into agritourism in this exclusive interview. He offers tips on what it takes to make a venture such as Exploration Acres work.
How do you go from a small business to what it is now? Starting a 10-year business plan is where I began years ago. We made decisions based on the profit potential with minimal investment.
Slow and steady worked for us. There is a temptation to do too much too soon.
What were your steps to success? I reached out to other places doing agritourism at the time, evaluated our own farm site, and then put together a plan that we discussed with a couple of Purdue Extension educators before deciding how to proceed.
What were the necessary hoops to go through? It is necessary to work with the local area plan commission, the county surveyor and to work with the Indiana Secretary of State’s office. It is also required us to submit plans to the Department of Homeland Security for public structures, and to obtain necessary permits.
How do you hire part-time seasonal workers? We advertise for the positions on social media. They can apply online. Exploration Acres also hosts a couple of hiring days before the opening each season. A lot of teenagers work here as their first job. College students work here as well, along with people with full-time careers who want to make some extra cash.
What are some tips to be successful? Set some goals, have a plan, and get up every day with the intent to make something happen that grows the business.
Boles is a senior in agricultural communication at Purdue University.