Kentucky Ag News
Randie Gallrein manages the farm’s greenhouse operations. The wife of co-owner Bill Gallrein Jr., Randie is shown in one of the farm’s 10 greenhouses. (Kentucky Department of Agriculture photo by Jim Trammel)
Agritourism is Gallrein's newest growth phase
By JIM TRAMMEL, Agritourism Monthly
SHELBYVILLE, Ky. - Gallrein Farms in Shelbyville, massive by any standard, is reaching for new markets through agritourism.
Ed Gallrein Sr.’s farm was once the state’s largest dairy producer, according to the farm’s website, milking 245 head of Holsteins per shift in the early 1970s, a number even more impressive than it would still be today. Later in that decade, Ed’s son Bill Gallrein Sr. foresaw, and his son Bill Jr. accomplished, the transition of the farm from Louisville to Shelby County and from dairy into vegetable crops.
Even then, they sold produce direct to consumers who would walk up to the loading area for it. But the consumer trade grew and grew for them, until in 1990 they built their farm market, directly in front of the loading area (which still has that function, so you can see produce arriving as you shop). The front room took over as the sales floor, with the bakery and lunch counter nearby.
In the front shop are produce displays in a direct sales operation overseen by Bill Jr.’s niece, Malia Hurst. She sells the farm’s produce and product lines such as sauces, jams and jellies, farm crafts, and local honey from the honey farm on the edge of their property (run by hivekeeper Lani Basberg). They sell the honey through the winter, also augmenting that slower time with local products and crafts produced in the area.
Spring, summer, fall
In the spring, flowers (mostly annuals but also herbs, hanging baskets, tropicals, and vegetable plants) pack Gallrein’s 10 greenhouses to capacity. Those are all sold by early July, to customers from Churchill Downs racetrack to mom-and-pop businesses and individual customers. Supervisor here is Bill Jr.’s wife, Randie.
From May through June is strawberry time. In July, other vegetables start coming in, led by Gallrein’s signature sweet corn along with green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, zucchini, and many other vegetables.
The farm does a steady business in alfalfa hay and a special rye straw prepared so as not to give off straw dust – popular at the Downs as well as with dust-conscious parents buying straw for children’s hayrides. Bill Jr. estimates that 65 percent of the produce sold at Gallrein’s market is grown on their farm. Most of the rest comes from other local farmers.
As fall approaches, attention shifts to the Fall Festival, non-stop on the farm from the second week of September through October. It is the most hectic time on the ever-busy 1,000-acre operation, says Bill Jr.
During festival months, the empty greenhouses become shelters for school group lunches, indoor activities, respite from bad weather, and sites of group meetings.
The farm gets out the barrel trains for the kids to “drive” like tractors (with specially-modified vehicles for physically challenged visitors), sells the pumpkins from their extensive pumpkin patch, opens up the corn maze, lets visitors feed the ducks off a special platform at the duck pond, and entertains at the petting zoo.
Malia explains the petting zoo has always been kept free of extra charge. They believe activities for the kids are good for developing future customers. They charge only for the feed the visitors give the animals, to cover their upkeep expenses. Malia says they plan to develop the current storage facility into a full-fledged education center next to the petting zoo, which will likely mean the start of an admission charge.
The most adventurous children get some attention from very friendly Clifford the camel. (Rumor has it that Clifford “hugs” his visitors, but he’s really just angling for food. Smart guy.) The camel attraction is the most “non-farm” thing at Gallrein, and there was some discussion as to its appropriateness, but serendipity prevailed. The farm sheltered an exotic camel for a friend and was so pleased at the resulting Facebook publicity that the next year they got their own. “Everybody loves the camel,” Malia said.
Visitors to the festival are so plentiful that the tractors pull tandem wagons full of pumpkin patch and corn maze visitors.
Wedding trade developing
This year, with a wedding being held every weekend from April through October in the reception center, they have added a wedding package specialist to handle that business. Barn weddings became a trend about 10 years ago, Malia estimated, and they’ve grown in popularity each year since.
It was again a serendipitous beginning. The building was originally a shell designed to shelter family reunions when it was built 20 years ago. But with multi-day packages becoming more frequent, weddings have supplanted reunions as the driving force. Malia keeps up with trends in booking weddings by attending multi-state meetings of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA). Malia attends national meetings, sells packages, and learns what others are doing.
Through all their seasons, the farm operates a sandwich shop and bakery, serving fresh-made lunches from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily in the market building. The bakery is their newest effort. “We’re still figuring out how to run this bakery thing,” Bill Jr. said.
How would they advise others to grow as they have?
“We were definitely a slow grow,” Bill Jr. said. “We got so well known for produce that we already had the people coming out here, so we thought we’d put in some things for them to do.”
So the produce and its reputation, to an extent, underpins the other activities – but the other activities keep people coming back.
“Gallrein is a country tradition out here,” Bill Jr. said. “Locals proudly visit the fall festival every year.”
The key seems to be recognizing when you have a customer base that is ready for something new, whether or not they know they want it.
Flowers herald the spring. The fall festival had its beginnings in the pumpkin patch. And the petting zoo, which was their first agritourism-style attraction, brings families out to buy and in the process creates the memories that will bring the children back in later years as young adults with families.
The process cannot be rushed, Bill Jr. warned. “We had to be careful – people who come for flowers might not come back for vegetables, and vice versa.”
Media advertising is not a strong part of the Gallrein marketing effort. They do some newspaper advertising in the Shelbyville and Frankfort newspapers, and in neighboring Louisville’s Southeast Outlook. They touch base with Facebook and social media; otherwise, they rely on word-of-mouth.
The large operation runs on a surprisingly small staff trained for multiple roles. There are three full-timers in the greenhouse, six in the market, and no more than 12 in the backshop, including all the farm’s pickers.
Gallrein’s looks to local high schoolers for a big part of their labor market. “Gallrein is a good first job,” Bill Jr. said. “It’s nice to see a young person come to us as a shy 15-year-old, work with us into the college years, and leave as a confident young adult.” Working with the public teaches a young employee valuable people skills and imbues confidence, Bill said. As if to underscore the advantages of acquiring confidence at an early age, 11-year-old Addie Gallrein rang up a purchase of Roma beans on the cash register, guided through the process by her grandmother, Randie.
Bill Jr. says the farm wants to improve in quality rather than just growing. He also wants to keep the focus on preserving the farm atmosphere that has made them such a friendly, approachable business. “We’re reluctant to get too commercial with our agritourism endeavors; we don’t want to seem like we’re straying too far from the farm,” he said.
Cautious risk-taking has served them well so far.
This article first appeared in the August 2015 issue of Agritourism Monthly, a Kentucky Department of Agriculture newsletter dedicated to Kentucky's agritourism industry. Jim Trammel is managing editor of Agritourism Monthly.