Farm reaping rewards of `agri-tourism' crop

Murder mysteries, `Survivor' game draw folks in slow season

February 14, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow night, a cast of characters that includes country-western singer Loretta Myhorsediedyesterday, Victoria's Secret model Mona Tightsweater and government contractor Gen. Bull Durham will gather at Nixon's Farm to solve a fictional murder mystery.

What does this have to do with agriculture? Not much, really.

But it helps sustain the West Friendship property during what Randy Nixon, president of the farm, calls the "dead period of the year - from after the Super Bowl to after the NCAA Championship."

During the winter season, farms have been turning to "agri-tainment" or "agri-tourism" to help increase profits. Hayrides and pumpkin patches often lure the public to farms when the fruits and vegetables are not in season.

But Nixon's Farm has taken a more creative approach, offering murder mysteries and a game based on the CBS reality television show Survivor. Although it's a catering farm, its business also slows down during the winter. The farm has fewer requests for wedding receptions, company picnics and high school reunions.

"This is when the snowbirds, they go to Florida," Nixon said. "Those of us who have children in school, we're stuck here. We've been to the theater, we've done the museums. There's got to be something else we can do."

The farm has been holding the murder mysteries for almost a year and the Survivor game since the fall only for its corporate clients, usually as team-building exercises.

"It keeps us busy in a time when traditionally facilities like us are un-busy," Nixon said.

But tomorrow's murder mystery is open to the public, and Nixon said more than 50 people have signed up, paying $40 each. He said the probability of offering a Survivor game for the public depends on the success of tomorrow's mystery.

Nixon said the activities are related to agriculture only to the extent that they are held on the farm, which grows corn, hay and alfalfa. The farm has been financially successful with the games, and Nixon said he tries to dispel the stereotype that traditional farming is "this romantic notion of the farmer pulling the plow and patiently tilling the soil."

"That is a totally antiquated concept," he said. "People have to understand, and I preach this ad nauseum, in order for a farm to survive, we have to branch out and do things that are not traditional farming."

Charlie Touchette, executive director of the Southampton, Mass.-based North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association, said such agri-tourism has "been going on as long as there have been farms," but the movement has been gaining momentum in the past 10 years.

He said the demand for agri-tourism has been growing because each decade people move further away from having the experience of walking on the family farm with their grandparents.

"It's a nostalgia piece," Touchette said. "And people who don't have any connection with a farm anymore are willing, able and desiring to step on a farm for a one-day outing."

The idea of the games at Nixon's Farm came from a "combination of boredom and desperation," Nixon said.

Nixon, who calls himself a "frustrated playwright," co-writes the murder-mystery scripts, tailored to the clients. Participants are assigned characters, and the numbers range from as few as 15 people to as many as 150. To determine the "killer's" identity, participants search for clues in the barn, or scattered over the 129-acre farm when the weather is nice.

In the Survivor game, based on the popular CBS reality show, contestants are sent to "Island Nixon" and divided into tribes. They complete challenges, such as archery or eating chocolate-covered crickets, until the game is narrowed to two competitors.

The remaining contestants must then plead their case to the rest of the tribe as to why they should win the game.

The winners of both games take home a "prize rumored to be worth one million calories," which is a basket of food that usually includes champagne, gourmet coffee and chocolate, said Rob Wecker, the farm's general manager.

"The Survivor game, of course, we pilfered," Nixon said.

Caragh Fitzgerald, an educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension's Howard office, said she has not heard of any other farm in the region offering entertainment similar to Nixon's Farm events, which she called "innovative ideas that they're making work."

She also said the land is one of the farm's biggest assets, allowing for such events to be held on the large acreage.

"Clearly, if they're doing the Survivor games and hosting receptions, almost all of what they do uses their land base and the farm property as part of the attraction for locating an event there," Fitzgerald said.

Nixon's Farm offers the games throughout the year, but demand for them is greater during the winter, Wecker said. In the fall, the farm holds hayrides and bonfires, as do others around the county.

Fitzgerald said farmers have started such enterprises to generate additional income and educate people about farming as they sell the farm experience.

She said many families are looking for what they cannot get in the suburbs, such as being able to pick their own strawberries instead of buying them at a grocery store.

"A lot of people are trying to have the experience of the country and the experience of farms," Fitzgerald said.

Nixon said the farm's events also fill an entertainment void in the western part of the county.

"All the entertainment is focused on the eastern part of the county," he said. "And it's very consumer driven - you have to go to the mall, you have to go to the restaurant, and you're not doing anything."

Information about Nixon's Farm murder mystery: 410-442-2151.

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