I began hosting dairy farm tours over 22 years ago. This was after my son and I went on a field trip, and the guide brought the kids over to see a cow. My son, Curtis, was 5. He looked at me with a weird look. He knew it was not a cow but a steer. That moment of misinformation started a big change in my life.
    There were other things that were confusing to my son, a farm kid. What did the other children in that school group come away with that was not accurate? Could this have been more educational to make it more memorable so they learned something? This was a pumpkin patch that had a few animals, a petting zoo. What if I did this on our farm? What could I do better?
    After coming home from that field trip, I thought about what I could do to provide an educational program with hands on learning. Milk a cow, hold chickens, maybe have a goat and a sheep to feed, and a pig or two. Pumpkins in the fall, baby animals in the spring. Lengthen the tour with a hayride to see the corn growing in the fields, and also use the hayride to bring the kids to the pumpkin patch and haul the pumpkins back to the school bus. My mind was buzzing.
    Having classes of kindergartners here in the spring and then again in the fall would give me a good reason to keep the weeds pulled and the farm tidy. I would need to be done with chores before the school groups arrived. And, I needed to incorporate the other activities – feeding cows with the mixer, field work, planting corn and cutting hay – all into what the school groups would see when they visited a real working farm. My target audience was school groups.
    Everything took off pretty fast. Teachers told each other about the tour, and my calendar filled. Parents and grandparents came on the tour as chaperones, and would call to inquire about a private tour when family and friends would come to visit.
    This was the start of family tours that came to visit on the weekends. With these tours, it was more than milking a cow. They got to see how a farm family lives.
    Farm kids play differently than other kids. Their work is often their play. Our boys had the sandbox divided up as different farms with their toy tractors, planting and moving sand. Our daughters hauled kittens in their baskets on their bikes, put eggs in their pockets and let the goat kids run around the yard with them. Farm kids got dirty. Farm kids could stay busy outside.
    With added tours on weekends, our kids learned how to answer questions about their animals and how to show other kids what they get to do every day. Our kids were running around doing their chores and working with their animals which later became their 4-H projects.
    Having families visit is emotionally rewarding because they think farm life is amazing. The visitors see how much love our kids have for our lifestyle. Often they envy the things we farmers take for granted. Not having to leave home to go to work. Simply being able to walk outside with our kids to do chores together. Riding for hours in the tractor with dad or grandpa is normal on a farm.
    We have also experienced another group of people that want to visit our farm – seniors. We needed to add a few things to make sure they all enjoyed the farm tour. We added more benches around the farm. They are in the busy areas where they could enjoy watching the animals in the barnyard. We took off the hay bales on the hayride and put benches. This helped so the seniors could get up easier from a sitting position.
    Coach bus tours began calling us to see if we could accommodate active seniors. They wanted to schedule our farm as a stop in route to destinations. Assisted living homes have promoted their activity programs. They are taking day trips to get their seniors out to keep them mobile and entertained.
    As our population ages, we have recognized that we will be hosting more and more senior tours. We are trying to have more handicap accessible areas, including bathrooms. We want to have our entry ways be easy enough to get a walker or wheel chair through. Keeping areas that wheel chairs can roll through without having to push through gravel or tall grass is important.
    We had a coach bus that had over 40 seniors from Winnipeg, Canada. They stopped on their way to Racine, Wis. This group was full of questions, and many of these active seniors had never been on a farm. It was surprising to me that a person 85 years old had never been on a farm. One senior told me the tour was so enlightening that she could have never imagined a farm being such a wonderful place to raise a family.
    As these groups get around the farm, I take mental notes on how to make improvements to make it more senior friendly. Also, I tell the story of our family farm in my presentations. They all are interested in how we have come to own and run our farm. Seniors love to hear the details about how we can continue the legacy that was from our ancestors from so many years ago.
    When I get a phone call or an email with questions about scheduling a tour, it does not matter if they are school aged children, families or seniors, they are all so important. We want to share with them what we are doing on our farm. When they leave, they have experienced something they will remember. The visit will be a positive image of agriculture and what farmers do for our communities, our country and our world.
    Tina Hinchley, her husband, Duane, and their daughters, Anna and Catherine, milk 240 registered Holsteins with robots. They also farm 2,300 acres of crops near Cambridge, Wis.  They have been hosting farm tours for over 20 years.