CHAMPAIGN -- Prairie Fruits Farm earned its reputation by producing goat's-milk cheese and gelato. Now the farm just north of Champaign-Urbana is milking agritourism for extra business.
This is the second year the farm has offered organized tours for groups of school children and adults.
It's also the second season that Prairie Fruits has worked with a pair of businesses -- the KD Ranch game farm near Oakwood and Sleepy Creek Vineyards near Fairmount -- to host the "Fork in the Road Tasting Trail."
And beginning this year, Prairie Fruits Farm is hosting training workshops in collaboration with The Land Connection and offering "Third Fridays" pop-up dinners from May to October.
Leslie Cooperband, who operates the farm on North Lincoln Avenue with her husband Wes Jarrell, said the move into agritourism "is a natural progression because we're both educators by nature."
Folks come to the farm to see the 70 goats milked there and to learn more about the 16,000 pounds of cheese produced each year. Some come to Wednesday afternoon open houses at which goat's-milk gelato is served by the scoop. Blackberries are available for picking at the open houses, and apples soon will be.
"People are surprised to see this kind of agriculture in the middle of cash-grain agriculture," Cooperband said. "It's a good opportunity to reconnect people to food, and that part is very satisfying."
Agritourism is one of five initiatives Visit Champaign County is pursuing this year and the one that's furthest along, said Jayne DeLuce, executive director of the local tourism bureau.
Earlier this year, the group said it plans to develop "agricultural adventure" packages that could include farm tours and possibly overnights on a farm.
So far, DeLuce said, the group has worked with the Champaign County Farm Bureau to identify farmers interested in participating. The tourism bureau already has an "AgriTours Illinois" program that caters mainly to education and research, but now it hopes to provide ag adventures for leisure travelers, DeLuce said.
Visit Champaign County also identified lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender tourism as an area for development. At this point, DeLuce said, the tourism bureau is supporting the Pride Festival slated for September. The bureau is also checking with Champaign County Clerk Gordy Hulten's office to find out what inquiries gay couples applying for marriage licenses have made regarding local destinations.
Other areas the agency hopes to develop include: African-American heritage tourism, particularly the hosting of family reunions; cultural tourism, with tours of area public arts sculptures; and international tourism, specifically attracting Chinese tourists.
According to figures released by the Illinois Office of Tourism, Champaign County enjoyed $306.6 million in direct spending by tourists in 2013, up 2.7 percent from 2012.
Helping to drive up tourism last year were the first year of the Bloomington Gold Corvette Show in Champaign County and an extra day for the state high school wrestling championships, DeLuce said.
Other contributing factors included the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, the Pygmalion Music Festival and the Ellnora Guitar Festival, as well as conferences such as the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry and the International Starch Technology Conference.
The release of area statistics came as Jen Hoelzle, deputy director of the Illinois Office of Tourism, stopped at Prairie Fruits Farm, one of 17 places that she will visit around the state this week.
Hoelzle emphasized two YouTube videos the state is sponsoring to drive tourism -- one focusing on MiniAbe, a tiny Abraham Lincoln who tours the state, and another focusing on "mancations," activities and destinations with particular appeal to men.
She also showed a video of Big Lincoln, a mascot wearing a huge Lincoln head and hat, that seemed to fascinate Japanese residents who encountered him.
Hoelzle said the state is also pushing culinary tourism, sports tourism, agritourism, wineries and craft breweries.