ITHACA, Wis. – An idea that took seed about two years ago in the minds of Marty and Teri Richards on a tour of the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has sprouted into a unique fledgling Wisconsin agritourism business that puts the spotlight on connecting non-farm consumers to agriculture in southwestern Wisconsin.

    “We were visiting our daughter who is stationed in South Korea and we took a tour of the DMZ,” Marty said. “There was nothing there. The joint base is interesting, especially when they say you can’t go through the door. But the rest is just looking at wildlife out in a wide open area. We rode on a bus for at least 30 minutes to get to it, and they didn’t feed us. I was thinking that there was a historical significance, but that we have that here with Frank Lloyd Wright, the Driftless area. I started wondering why you couldn’t do tours in our area.”
    This past spring, Ridge and Valley Tours LLC sprouted. The Richardses started their Wisconsin agritourism business. Marty was raised on his family’s Richland County dairy farm and Teri grew up visiting her grandparents’ farm. Both have a strong sense of connection to the dairy industry The couples’ goal is to bring urbanites to rural Richland County to learn more about Wisconsin agriculture, particularly the dairy and cheese industries.
    The seed of an idea planted in South Korea began to take root and started growing following winery tours the Richardses took in Italy.
    “It was a really gritty-type tour, it was the reality of being a winemaker in Italy,” Marty said. “It helped me understand what we wanted the tour to look like. We wanted it to be the reality of farming today. We also wanted to educate. We wanted to get people from the urban areas so they understand that their milk comes from a cow, not from the store.”

    The Richardses have set up two tours that each run once a month. The tours make four or five stops each, and are called the East Coast and the West Coast tours, referring to the direction they travel from the Pine River that runs through Richland Center, Wis., where each tour originates at one of two local restaurants.
    The East Coast tour travels first to Blueview Farms, a dairy farm belonging to Nate and Kayla Duren in rural Cazenovia, Wis. The Durens milk about 45 head of Jerseys and Red and White Holsteins, shipping their milk to Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle, Wis., another stop on the East Coast tour.  The Durens’ herd is rotationally grazed and milked in a tiestall barn.
    In addition to the bovine dairy farm, the East Coast tour visits a goat dairy, also located in Cazenovia, Wis. Chad McCauley and Robin Loewe milk about 160 goats on the farm they started about four years ago. They also ship their milk to Carr Valley Cheese.
    The East Coast tour concludes with a true farm-to-fork meal at Hillsboro Brewing Company in Hillsboro, Wis., which features fare that is locally sourced in the Driftless region.
    The West Coast tour visits the newly-certified organic dairy farm of Dennis and Virginia Hatfield near Viola, Wis. The Hatfields milk 185 cows in their new parlor, recently rebuilt following a fire last year.
    The West Coast tour also features a stop at Darick and Melissa Luck’s Maple Valley Yaks in Blue River, Wis., where they raise yaks for meat production. The couple also operates a second niche business repurposing old wood. The West Coast tour concludes at English Ridge Orchard in Richland Center, Wis., where Corey and Sarah Everts pasture-raise heritage pig breeds, and fall-finish the pork with apples from their farm’s apple orchard. The West Coast tour is concluded with a farm-to-fork meal of pulled pork sandwiches made by Corey, who is a New York-trained chef.
    “We’ve found that at the meals there is great conversation about the way food is produced,” Teri said. “Complete strangers sit and talk about the tours, the industry and the food. We have to sometimes break it off so that we can return to Richland Center to conclude the tours.”
    The Richardses said those who attend their tours comprise interesting and diverse groups.
    “We have had some guests that have been really taken aback by everything that happens to produce food, and had previously thought produce came from a warehouse,” Marty said. “It baffled me that belief is out there, that people just don’t understand the labor that goes into food production.”
    Most have no connection to or understanding of the dairy industry or agriculture, and some may have misconceptions about what is involved in agriculture, particularly in animal agriculture.
    “We were waiting for the PETA or animal protection person to come along, and we had one on an East Coast tour,” Marty said. “She gave us a neat perspective from the kinds of questions she asked, and it was cool because her questioning really brought out how much Nate and Robin cared for those animals. That was the education we were kind of looking for, bringing folks from an urban area and show them what is happening out here; that the farmers really have to care for their cattle.”
    Maintaining a dairy component in each of their tours is of upmost importance for the Richardses, particularly from a consumer education viewpoint.
    “We want to bring light to the dairy industry,” Marty said. “It’s not easy work, but it is important work.”
    The inaugural season of Ridge and Valley Tours has been a learning curve for the Richardses, especially since there are really no similar businesses to learn from or compare theirs to. They committed to themselves to run the tours for three years before evaluating whether or not to continue to move the business forward.
    “We understand we’re carrying a big rock up a big hill. That’s OK. We are used to those kinds of challenges,” Marty said of building a niche for agritourism. “It’s like picking rock. If you look at the whole field you will get overwhelmed. If you just put your head down and pick rocks, you can get it done.”
    The Richardses have been encouraged by the response they have received from visitors who have taken one of their tours, and the reviews they have received.  
    “We are planting seeds for this to grow right now,” Teri said of the fledgling business. “We really want to show people the heritage of the farm family and how a real farm operates.”