Cow to cup: Agritourism a backstage pass at Hansen’s Dairy

September 26, 2023 11:50 am

Meta Hemenway-Forbes, Hansen’s Dairy Marketing Manager

Agritourism at Hansen’s Dairy aims to educate visitors on how milk gets from our cows to their cups.

Twenty years ago, Hansen’s Dairy Farm gave impromptu tours to a few hundred visitors each summer. A quick phone call could generate a same-day tour, provided a Hansen family member who wasn’t tending to the cows or the fields was available.

A dotted-nose calf greeted visitors during the Hansen’s Dairy 2023 tour season.

Visitors were given a walking tour of the Hudson farm to pet calves, cows and wallabies (the farm’s first mascot). They convened afterward for samples of Hansen’s Dairy products in the farm’s repair shop that doubled as a makeshift tour center.

“There wasn’t an easily accessible bathroom or hand-washing station. We had people washing their hands in the sink where calf bottles are washed,” Jordan Hansen recalls, laughing. Hansen is co-owner and bookkeeper for the farm.

The dairy farm quickly outgrew its burgeoning agritourism arm. As the number of visitors to the farm increased, so did the need for more space, staff and structure. Today, the farm hosts thousands of visitors during its annual April 1-Oct. 31 tour season. Other annual events, like the Farm to Table Dinner, Down on the Farm Breakfast and A Very Dairy Christmas, draw hundreds more.

Stories of agriculture

It’s a similar story for many farms across the country.

Farm agritourism revenue more than tripled between 2002 and 2017, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture. Nationally, 28,575 farms offer some form of agritourism — tours, events or farm-to-table direct sales. Of those farms, 2,873 are in Iowa. Data for the 2022 census, conducted by Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, has not yet been released.

A young girl meets Lapan the cow during the 2022 Down on the Farm Breakfast at Hansen’s Dairy Farm. Tickets to the annual event sell out nearly every year.

Global agritourism market growth is driven, in part, by increasing demand from tourists who want to experience rural life along with government initiatives that promote agritourism, says a Zion Market Research report. Case in point: The Iowa Agricultural Tourism Promotion Act was signed into law in 2021 to help boost agritourism in the Hawkeye State. The Zion report predicts continued strong growth in the industry nationally over the next several years.

20 years of tours

Hansen’s Dairy tours have certainly come a long way from their humble beginnings. Today, the farm has a dedicated tour center where educational displays line the walls. Parking space is plentiful, and a third-party booking system replaced the overwhelming number of incoming phone calls for tour requests. A tractor-drawn trolley now ferries visitors to the farm and additional tour guides have been hired to handle the influx. Kangaroos have replaced wallabies as the farm’s official mascot.

In 2022, nearly 9,000 visitors from all over the world toured Hansen’s Dairy Farm, a seismic leap from two decades ago.

Roobarb, one of Hansen’s Dairy kangaroo mascots, accepts a treat from a visitor during a tour.

Among them are hundreds of students from Iowa classrooms who take field trips to learn about dairy farming.

Silos & Smokestacks

Some of those student tours are funded by a grant through Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area based in Northeast Iowa. Silos & Smokestacks is one of 62 National Heritage Areas across the country, and the only NHA dedicated to telling and preserving the stories of agriculture.

“It’s amazing how many people aren’t really aware where their food, fuel and clothing come from. Every moment of our lives comes from agriculture somehow,” said Jori Wade-Booth, Silos & Smokestacks marketing and communications director.

Hansen’s Dairy is among dozens of Silos & Smokestacks’ Iowa partner sites. The partnerships are a win-win exchange of ideas and resources.

“We provide education for those sites and best practices for history preservation and finding funding,” Wade-Booth said, noting Silos & Smokestacks’ partnership with the National Parks Service helps drive traffic to its Iowa partner sites.

“We have so many innovations in Iowa,” she added. “Iowa’s agriculture is part of the leading industry in our country’s birth. Our farming industry has deep and important historical roots, and our connection with the National Parks Service lets us share those stories nationally.”

Deep roots

Hansen’s Dairy roots run deep in Iowa, too. The farm has been in the Hansen family for more than 150 years. The Hansen brothers who own and run the farm — Brent, Brad, Blair and Blake — are the sixth generation of Hansens to do so.

Bottle feeding a calf is part of a Hands-on Tour of the farm.

Next year marks the farm’s 20th tour season. Though many things have changed since the dairy first began offering tours, the motivation to open the barn doors and let the public in remains the same.

“It’s so much more than seeing cows and kangaroos and having ice cream,” Hansen said. “People get to come on this tour and see where the cows live and what they eat. You really learn the story behind the milk that goes into the jug. We want to be transparent about how our products are made and how they get to your table.”

Book a tour of Hansen’s Dairy here. Tour season ends Oct. 31.

Visitors are treated to a trolley ride around the farm before a walking tour.