Windy Hill Farm and Preserve announced a $10 million investment to expand lodging and guest amenities

Windy Hill Farm's once lifeless pastures are now lush with tall native grasses.

Soon, the farm will be a destination for tourists looking for an immersive outdoors experience in East Tennessee.

As consumers crave more knowledge about where their food comes from and seek local and regional travel experiences, Windy Hill Hospitality LLC has announced a $10 million investment to turn Windy Hill Farm and Preserve into a year-round, all-inclusive boutique resort, while remaining a working farm.

Following in the footsteps of East Tennessee's exclusive resorts, Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain, the Loudon farm and other East Tennessee farms continue to invest in the agritourism industry.

"I think people want to be in open spaces, and learn about those open spaces, and invest in a true experience rather than just an empty vacation," said Steve Brewington, general manager of Windy Hill Farms. His family owns the farm.

What is agritourism?

Agritourism, or the intersection between agriculture and tourism, is expected to become a $62 billion industry worldwide by 2027, according to a report published by Allied Market Research.

The industry includes any commercial efforts that attract visitors to farms or other agricultural businesses. They're often educational or entertaining, according to the National Agricultural Law Center, and can be anything from pumpkin patches to winery tastings to rural bed and breakfasts.

Ken Oakes operates two agritourism businesses. Oakes Farm pumpkin patch and corn maze wrapped up its 21st season at the end of October. The rest of the year, the Oakes family operates Oakes Daylilies nursery.

"Agritourism is a way to supplement your income, to get a whole new revenue stream from folks coming to the farm," Oakes said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agritourism endeavors can keep small and mid-size farms competitive with alternate streams of revenue, revitalize rural economies, provide more jobs, and educate the public about local food. Nationally, agritourism revenue more than tripled from 2002-2017 to $950 million, excluding wineries.

It also requires different skills than just farming the land, Oakes said, like marketing skills. Twenty-one years ago, a pick-your-own pumpkin patch in Corryton raised some eyebrows. Now, it's not fall without a trip to a pick-your-own farm. So agritourism investments also require vision.

"It's hard to make a living on a farm just doing the things that used to work a couple generations ago, perhaps," Oakes said. "Most farmers have another job, but if you do agritourism, potentially, you can increase your income enough to make that your primary livelihood. So there's a lot of interest."

According to the USDA, agritourism revenue is often higher for farms near other amenities and in more populated counties.

Oakes said he tries to add a new element to the Oakes Farm experience every year and is often inspired by what farmers around the state and nation are doing. This year, he added giant bubbles after a farmer friend in the Nashville area recommended it.

"We're in an experience economy these days," Oakes said. "People want to spend their money on doing things, taking the family out and having experiences, so I think we've benefitted from that."

The Windy Hill Farm resort will create a new experience for wealthy consumers, but restoring the property also seemed like the right thing to do, Brewington said.

“I could have gone back to a more commercial farming atmosphere and loaded the place up with cattle or other livestock and been able to make a living doing that," he said. "(But) our passion was the land, and inviting people out to enjoy the land, so it was kind of the only option for us."

Restoring the natural beauty

About three-quarters of Windy Hill's 650-acre property looks different than your average cattle farm.

Brewington's family purchased it in 2000. Over time, it had become rundown and overburdened with livestock. The family has focused on restoring the property's natural beauty since 2014.

Agritourism guests at Windy Hill, located on Breck Ellison Road, about 45 minutes from downtown Knoxville, will not encounter perfectly manicured lawns or endless rows of crops. The property is full of native grasses, diverse species of plants healing the once overgrazed soil, food plots and forests.

“To the untrained eye (it) might look like … it's unkempt, but there's a lot that goes into making that habitat habitable for all the wildlife species that we’re interested in protecting," Brewington said.

According to the latest Census of Agriculture, more than 28,000 U.S. farms participated in agritourism or recreational services in 2017, efforts worth $949 million, up from $704 million in 2012.

In Knox County, there were 1,037 farms totaling more than 67,000 acres, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture published by the USDA. Blount County had 1,073 farms, Anderson had 538, Sevier had 547, Roane had 617, Jefferson had 973 and Grainger had 923.

Creating a luxury experience

After establishing the property as a wildlife preserve, the family offered guided dove and bobwhite quail hunting, then dining and lodging for hunting guests.

Establishing Windy Hill as a year-round resort is the next step in that evolution.

The property already has nine private cabins that began hosting guests in October. Next up is renovating the main lodge, and building the Wilder at Windy Hill restaurant, bar and commercial kitchen.

Windy Hill will also break ground on an eight-bedroom guest lodge.

The property, which includes more than a mile of Tennessee River shoreline, will offer plenty of outdoor, hands-on activities, from kayaking to hiking to beekeeping and gardening.

At Wilder, chef Ben Warwick will serve farm-to-table Southern food with international flair. And it's still a working farm, with free-range, grass-fed cattle, heirloom hogs, chickens and gardens.

Guests staying at Windy Hill will pay around $600 a night for the all-inclusive experience, including three meals daily for two guests.

Bringing customers to the table

Land Basket Farm hosted a series of farm to table dinners in 2021. These intimate dinners gave consumers a chance to experience the farm and learn more about the animals raised there. It's a niche of agritourism, which includes any activity that brings consumers to farms.

Kevin Jacobi, a retired U.S. army colonel, is seeing an increase in interest from consumers about what goes on around the farm and has made additions to his business model to connect directly with customers. His 80-acre Land Basket Farm in Russellville is a small, family-run farm that sells eggs, chickens, hogs and lamb.

For the first time, Jacobi hosted four on-site farm-to-table dinners this year to market more directly to customers and potential customers.

The dinners, limited to 30 guests, were full of food grown on the farm and prepared by chef Lawrence Phillips of Jersey Girl Diner in Morristown.

The most recent dinner, held in October, featured dishes like rosemary basil grilled lollipop lamb chops and forest-raised pork chops with red onion marmalade.

Land Basket Farm has pasture-raised, non-GMO chickens, farm fresh eggs. pasture raised lamb and forest-raised pork.

"The point is the food they're eating is pasture proteins that we raised right there on the farm," Jacobi said. "So I don't do this because I'm into entertainment, I do this because I want to be a trusted source for pasture-raised meat to the people of Knoxville."

Land Basket Farm products can be found through the Knoxville Farmers Market, direct through the farm's website, and Market Wagon, an online farmers market that delivers products from local farms.

Jacobi plans to continue the farm-to-table dinners next year.

When customers want to know more about the chickens, he offers private farm tours, about $40 a person. These tours, which he's done for the last three seasons, are another source of revenue for the farm and a way to connect with customers.

"People want to shop local, they want to find a source, a farmer that they can talk to about their chicken," Jacobi said. "They crave that, and they're out there."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Brenna McDermott

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Published November 12, 2021