That's 'agritainment': Local farms kick into high gear with apple cannons, mazes, more

Mackensy Lunsford
The Citizen-Times
Christ School Episcopal School students wave to their fellow kindergarteners riding in another tractor trailer as they head to pick apples at Sky Top Orchard in Flat Rock September 12, 2019.

It used to be "u-pick" produce was enough for farms to draw in a little side cash. But these are the days of agritainment — where you might, say, pick a peck of apples and also shoot a few out of a cannon.

That's one draw at Stepp's Hillcrest Orchard, a third-generation family farm where you can also pick apples, sunflowers and pumpkins.

Family fun

Danielle Stepp McCall, whose grandparents founded the Hendersonville farm, said Stepp's this year celebrates 50 years of apple picking. "But now we're much more involved in agritourism, and even agritainment."

Agritainment takes agritourism one step further, with experiential farm activities like corn mazes, up-close animal interactions and Stepp's ever-popular apple cannons, which use an air compressor to launch produce to impressive lengths.   

McCall maintains that the biggest attraction at the farm, however, is the 100 acres people can wander. "This whole idea of getting out in the country with the fresh air."

Bouncy houses, sustainable farming

That's also a big draw at Hickory Nut Gap Farm, long a hot spot for families to ogle the scenery and animal enclosures. 

But the Fairview farm has also bumped up its agritainment options, adding a bouncy house, baby chick holding and a new, expanded corn pit. The original corn silo is now an immersive musical experience, hung with chimes and washboards and other instruments. 

Hickory Nut Gap marketing director Natalie Furniss said increased entertainment options help the farm stay competitive. But the effort goes beyond getting more bottoms in tricycle seats.

"Our mission statement is building community through agriculture, and we want to be accessible to a lot of different people," she said.

Related:Eliada revives history of farming

Demonstrations with education

That means, in addition to showcasing house-made hot dogs and whole-animal butchery demos in the onsite deli, beefing up attractions that appeal to a wider audience. "We want people to come out and experience agriculture, and if it's the hayrides and bouncy house that bring them out, then great."

The aim is twofold: more money is of course a plus, but exposing people to the educational side of agriculture, from the life cycle of chickens to the concept of regenerative agriculture, is priceless, said Furniss. 

"Regenerative agriculture can be a leading force in climate change, and that's huge."

Farm fun is an excellent gateway to help people understand where their dollar goes when they're buying local food, she added. "And as people demand healthier, more humanely raised products, then that's what the market supplies — it's about the bigger picture, other than just being a fun place."

Go here for farm fun

Sky Top Orchard 

Maybe it's the recent heat, but last week the apple trees were practically groaning with fruit. How to find the best? Ride a tractor to some of the farthest reaches of the orchard, or simply wander a bit off the beaten path. Bring a basket, but also an open mind. Everyone wants the Honeycrisps (which will start to dwindle soon), but the Fujis were ripe and juicy last week. Check the website for the apple schedule.

But it's not all about apples: The orchard also has a whole crew dedicated solely to apple cider doughnuts, which come from the fryer hot and crisp, served warm dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Don't skip those. Since it looks like the heat will linger a bit, spring also for a cider slushie, or even the Sky Top-brand hard cider.

There's also ample room for kids to play, including a yard of slides protruding from giant produce, animals to feed and a bee train to ride. But the panoramic mountain views are definitely worth the price of admission which, by the way, is free (but bring cash for those doughnuts). Sky Top is above Flat Rock on Pinnacle Mountain Road, accessible from U.S. 225. Check skytoporchard.com for more detailed directions.

More:Photos: 2019 NC Apple Festival in Hendersonville

More:Nature Journal: Plants' fruit is the best part, even over flowers

Cordelia Briggs looks at a gala apple she plucked from a tree at Sky Top Orchard in Flat Rock September 12, 2019.

Grandad's Apples N Such

This huge Hendersonville Farm has u-pick apples, and also a good crop of pumpkins in the patch this year, which should be available until late October.

There's also a bakery serving hot cider doughnuts, a barnyard corral and a sweet little cow train on the weekends. The corn maze is also open for the season. And, yes, you can shoot apples out of a cannon here, too. Find it at 2951 Chimney Rock Road in Hendersonville.

Hickory Nut Gap Farm

Hickory Nut Gap Farm kicked off its fall events on Sept. 1. Through November, enjoy fall on the farm from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Weekday admission is $5 for ages 5 and older, and on weekends, it's $10. 

On weekdays, kids can wallow in the bigger, better corn pit, play on the trike track, go on a scavenger hunt, pick apples, check out baby farm animals and watch 10:30 a.m. calf feedings. 

On weekends, the farm has all that and a few extra activities, including a bouncy house, unlimited kiddie cart runs and hayrides, baby chick holding at 2 p.m. and cider pressing. Hickory Nut Gap Farm is at 57 Sugar Hollow Road in Fairview.

Eliada Corn Maze

This nonprofit corn maze raises funds for Eliada, which provides development programming, intervention services and trauma treatment for children.

Eliada, which has been going back to its roots as a farm, has a geodesic greenhouse with a hydroponic grow system, plus non-GMO corn in its maze, and more farming under development on its 320 acres. 

Children 3 years old and younger get free admission. Everyone else pays $10. For that, you get access to a giant corn maze with a monster mystery scavenger hunt to solve, a giant jumping pillow, tractor rides, corn cannons, giant tube slides and more. The corn maze is open Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 27. Eliada is at 2 Compton Drive. 

The Eliada Corn Maze will be open September 14th through Sunday October 27th.

Stepp's Hillcrest Orchard

Pick your own pumpkins (check the website for availability) and apples from 21 different varieties. There's also a 5-acre corn maze, a bakery turning out pumpkin and cider doughnuts and a tractor-pulled wagon on weekends. The grounds are particularly picturesque, with nature trails and expansive orchards with mountains looming in the distance. Find Stepp's at 170 Stepp Orchard Drive in Hendersonville.