Following the Great River Road to local foods
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Grown Program is teaming up with the Minnesota Great River Road commission to highlight some of the best the fall season has to offer. September is Drive the Great River Road Month in all 10 Mississippi River states.
BRAINERD — If someone just can’t wait to get on the road again, like legendary singer Willie Nelson sang in his classic about wanderlust, this could be the best time to do so.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Grown Program is teaming up with the Minnesota Great River Road to highlight some of the best the upcoming fall season has to offer along the river.
“This year, we just came up with this idea of working more hand-in-glove with them in promoting the agritourism sites along the Great River Road during harvest season here in September,” said Karl Samp, a Brainerd resident and Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway commissioner.
September is Drive the Great River Road Month in all 10 Mississippi River states and the perfect time for a road trip, according to Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway officials. The Mississippi River flows through the Brainerd lakes area.
The 565-mile Minnesota Great River Road runs from Lake Itasca to the Iowa border through 20 counties, 43 communities and three tribal nations. The route features more than 700 things to see and do, including over 250 Minnesota Grown member locations along or near the route.
“Previously, we had worked with the Department of Ag in mapping agritourism sites and putting them on our website,” Samp said of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, one of the five state commissions represented on the parkway commission.
In September, the parkway commission will be highlighting farms, markets, farm-to-table restaurants, parks, scenic points, commercial districts, lodging options and more all along Minnesota’s Great River Road.
“With all the new wineries that are out there, that would be an example of agritourism — anything like pumpkin patch or apple orchard or blueberry farms or anything like that that provides you-pick-them opportunities,” Samp said.
“All the farmers markets that are along the river are considered part of agritourism and then we have historic sites like the Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, which is a kind of a historical agricultural site.”
Samp represents the Brainerd-to-Elk River region and said tourism spending in communities along the river is double the amount spent in communities not along the river. Samp has been active in riverfront development efforts in Brainerd and St. Cloud.
According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the latest national figures available, 28,575 farms offered agritourism and recreational services resulting in $949 million in sales. In addition, direct-to-consumer sales brought in $2.8 billion in sales for 130,056 farms.
The Mississippi River corridor is well represented in agriculture and tourism.
“There are over 200 farmers markets, farm wineries, apple orchards, within 10 miles of the Great River Road and so this is kind of an opportunity to use those opportunities as a way to create awareness of the Great River Road in general,” said Paul Hugunin, director of the ag marketing and development division of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “We'll be working closely with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Historical Society in promoting all the other activities there are to do along the Great River Road.”
The Minnesota Grown Program is a statewide partnership between the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota producers of specialty crops and livestock. Minnesota Grown connects Minnesotans directly to farmers, farmers markets and other producers.
“I just saw a really fun post from a Minnesota Grown member where they have a sunflower field and it's an opportunity for people to go take photos in a sunflower field and so that's a revenue generator for them,” Hugunin said.
Minnesota’s Mississippi River Parkway Commission’s stated mission is “to preserve, promote and enhance the scenic, historic and recreational resources of the Mississippi River, to foster economic growth in the corridor and to develop the national, scenic and historic byway known as the Great River Road.”
Meshing agriculture and tourism is one way to accomplish that, Huginin said.
“Agritourism is growing. It encompasses a variety of activities, and it's really complementary with kind of what you might think of as traditional tourism — visiting an amusement park or a museum,” Hugunin said.
The Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway Commission is part of the larger 10-state national commission organized in 1938 to celebrate the river by developing the Great River Road Scenic Byway.
Since its inception, Minnesota has been working on ways to carve out its niche on the byway.
“We're just super excited to celebrate the (fall) harvest … a really nice place to start hopefully raising awareness about this amazing resource that flows all the way through Minnesota, basically,” Hugunin said.
By the numbers
Not every farm in Minnesota that is eligible to advertise in the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s listing chooses to do so. Here are some common agritourism categories in the statewide online Minnesota Grown Directory at
- Farmstay/bed-and-breakfast: 16.
- Crop mazes: 25.
- Farms that offer tours: 68.
- Farm wineries: 31.
- Pumpkin patches: 210.
- Apple orchards: 135.