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The rain couldn’t do it justice. Hints of color peek through as the drops pelt the windshield on the drive down the windy two-lane just off Interstate 29. Fall harvest in limbo, so one would assume activity of most any kind would halt this day. Perhaps after November there will be time to rest.

Nestled in the rolling countryside between Platte City and Weston, a red barn sits high atop a hill, greeting visitors rain or shine. Umbrellas in hand, the country store at Weston Red Barn Farm bustles with activity as one by one they seek a basket of apples or a trinket from the shelf. It’s here that Steve Frey’s vision of being a farmer comes to fruition. It’s here where urban folk meet the rural way of life. It’s here where agritourism finds a niche all its own.

Like Uncle Earl's Farm

Steve Frey’s interest in agriculture was cultivated at the tender age of seven. He remembers fondly the visits he and his brother would make to Uncle Earl’s farm near Higginsville. A traditional turn of the century farm, it was stocked with milk cows, hogs and chickens.

“It was really old school,” Steve remembers.

Despite the fact he only visited the farm perhaps a dozen times over his childhood years, it left a lasting impression on Steve. “It was Disneyland,” he says.

Although he was raised in the suburbs of Johnson County, Kansas, his family was rooted in the rural way of life. Steve’s mom was raised in Higginsville, while his dad grew up on a farm in Lexington before becoming an accountant.

After college, Steve worked 14 years in procurement, partly living overseas for Saudi Arabia Airlines. During that time, he enjoyed the “farm thing” in his head, wondering how he could someday become a farmer.

In about 1980, Steve purchased a little farm just across the creek from his current location. He planted Christmas trees and walnut trees, sparking his first interest in agritourism. “Almost all the Christmas trees died,” he recalls.

Continuing to follow his interest, Steve met his wife Cindy and over time the duo began to think an educational farm for children would be a great venture.

“We really started as an educational farm for kids,” Steve explains. “I knew I liked the setting (here), the atmosphere, the look and feel of an old, turn of the century farm.”

They searched for a place to buy and Steve says they kept coming back to the northwest Missouri area because of family.

Well-known for its rich heritage, Steve thought Weston would be a great location for his agritourism adventure.

“Our first school tour featured a couple of goats and a bottle calf,” Steve remembers. “We had done our research and we were good at giving facts.”

In its first year, Weston Red Barn Farm brought in $5,000. It was the first money Steve had earned outside of a corporate job. “That was the best feeling I had ever had on earning money,” he says.

Having just completed its 25th fall season, Weston Red Barn farm today encompasses about 200 acres with activities ranging from u-pick apples, blackberries and pumpkins to educational tours, a corn maze, a country store and wedding venue. Open from April through November, each entity moves like the spokes on a bicycle.

“(The different entities) are all revenue streams feeding into the entire Weston Red Barn Farm operation,” Steve explains, “but they all feed off one another.”

Room to Grow

Excitement billows in Steve’s voice as he announces the addition of son Donovan Diaz and daughter-in-law Kate to the farm business.

Lawyer and marketing specialist by trade, the young couple was eager to trade their corporate lifestyle, which at one time found them in Japan, for a simpler way in America’s heartland. They sought a better environment to raise their two daughters — ages 11 and nearly 1.

But, bringing them on board took careful planning and preparation to make sure it would be the right thing to do for all parties involved.

In July the two made the move to Weston, joining Steve and Cindy in the operation. They hit the ground running and are settling in to newfound responsibilities.

While Steve’s job is to manage all of the outdoor aspects of the farm operation, Donovan and Kate handle much of the inside tasks from payroll to social media to the wedding venue and tour communications.

“Cindy is the glue that holds everyone together,” Steve credits. She’s also the chief accountant and bookkeeper.

“They are going to take this operation to a new level,” Steve says of Donovan and Kate.

The addition of a second wedding facility under construction with the help of Farm Credit Leasing will allow further growth in the farm business.

The addition of the second site will make room for a total of about 120 weddings per year in 2016 between the two facilities. Not bad considering weddings were never really an intention.

Having evolved after hosting a wedding for two teachers who had previously done a school tour at the farm, Steve says the wedding venue has blossomed.

“About seven years ago, we hit a critical mass of about 35 to 40 weddings and then it just took off,” he explains. “The last three to four years, the farm has consistently hosted about 60 weddings a year. We’ll hit 70 in 2014.”

The existing wedding facility was built with all re-claimed wood. Essentially a retrofitted tobacco barn, it wasn’t constructed with weddings in mind. Windows in the barn came from the old Kansas City Stockyards. In fact, the decks and barn doors were a later addition.

“Initially, it was an overhang and served as a place for school children to eat lunch during the tours,” Steve says. “I could bring Quincy the dairy cow in on rainy days for a milking demo. That way we didn’t have to cancel the tours.”

The additional wedding site is what Steve calls “the premier wedding spot anywhere.” It will feature a 70x40-foot barn and a 16x60-foot lean to, and will offer a variety of wedding packages, depending on the customer’s needs.

“People choose the farm for weddings because of the farm (location) and the excellent service we provide,” Steve notes. “We’ve tried to keep it non-commercial.”

Managing growth is perhaps their greatest challenge, Steve says. “We don’t want it to become something that isn’t enjoyable and that we can’t keep up with. There is a point where we get so many people. We have to keep them safe. We don’t want them to be unhappy.”

Building Relationships

Whether it’s with his employees, the customers he serves, or his business partners like FCS Financial and Farm Credit Leasing, Steve Frey is all about building relationships.

“We’re in the people business,” he says, “the service business.”

He continues, “To me, it’s about relationships. It’s never a one time deal.”

Steve admits he didn’t know a thing about FCS Financial in the beginning. “I heard about them from one of the local farmers that had a great experience there,” Steve says. “All of my relationships are rock-solid and strong. That is critical to me. I felt like I could create that same relationship with the folks at FCS Financial.”

Over the years, the Freys have worked with FCS Financial on real estate purchases, and Steve appreciates the fact the cooperative understands farming.

“It’s hard to explain my business and how it works to somebody that doesn’t understand farm stuff,” Steve realizes. “I think FCS Financial has had an extremely open mind about agritourism, how our revenue comes in. They’ve looked at it pragmatically. I really appreciate that.”

According to FCS Financial’s Clint Callow, “Steve’s a businessman. He had a vision for how to make a business work.”

Clint goes on to say that he knows if Steve calls him, he’s thought it over and has a plan in place. “And, he knows that this needs to be done for the big picture.”

Relationships were key as well when the Freys looked to expand their operation with a second wedding venue.

Somewhat ironic in how the venture transpired, literally 15 minutes before walking his daughter down the aisle at Weston Red Barn Farm, Lynn Rogers, vice president and senior relationship manager with Farm Credit Leasing, fostered a relationship with Steve.

“(The Freys) represent a form of agritourism and are leaders in that,” Lynn says. “They combine the farm operation with the urban market. They’ve done a really good job of marrying the two together.”

The leasing arm for the Farm Credit System, Lynn says Farm Credit Leasing works with anyone involved in agriculture to provide lease financing for their agricultural operations.

“We try to package a lease that works best for the customer based on their tax needs and the type of business they are in,” Lynn says. “We work with the smallest producer to the very largest agribusiness.”

Leases can be set up on tractors, combines and other farm equipment as well as buildings and grain bins.

The first part of the facility lease is the actual construction financing. Once the lease is approved, Farm Credit Leasing pays the customer-approved vendors. “We don’t pay anything until the customer approves it,” Lynn explains.

The actual lease is the second part of the equation. Terms can be set up for 60 months to 10 years. And, payments can be established to meet the customer’s cash flow needs.

“It gives the customer a lot of flexibility,” Lynn says. “It’s really a purchase to own. At the end of the term, the customer can decide if he wants to purchase or renew the lease.”

Clint adds, “(Leasing) is a valuable tax and financial planning tool.”

Seeing substantial growth in the farm leasing industry, Lynn says, “I encourage customers to look at the differences in leasing companies. Has the business been involved in agriculture for long? You want to be sure the leasing company will still be in business when the lease term is up.”

Niche Marketing

Steve Frey believes that people want to be more in touch with where their food comes from. That itself has fueled a fire in the agritourism industry.

“As time goes on, there will be a great need for what we’re doing,” Steve says.

Perhaps ahead of the curve on agritourism, Steve says timing and location have been helpful in building his business. “I had an intrinsic interest in this,” he states. “We lucked out on some critical choices, and at the time we didn’t know how beneficial those were.”

Years working as a purchasing agent proved fruitful in helping Steve Frey become a good salesman. “I love selling stuff,” he says. “Growing things is difficult. I love the people part of it.”
Agritourism is, indeed, a people business.

“I have to work hard at the growing part of the business,” Steve notes. “There’s a confidence thing about it. I hold the guys that can do it in ‘awe.’ I’m learning over time.”

Still, the farmer that wanted to be has become.

“The farm has given Cindy and I a lot more than we’ve given back,” Steve admits. “Travel. Learning. Relationships. It’s fun to have people around you that enjoy doing what they do.”
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