Horse farms mix business and tourism

A dozen people took one of the daily tours of historic Claiborne Farm on Winchester Road near Paris last summer.
A dozen people took one of the daily tours of historic Claiborne Farm on Winchester Road near Paris last summer. Herald-Leader

Most horse farm owners love what they do and where they do it, and understand the community's desire to experience it.

Yet, despite efforts to share what they can when they can, horse farms regularly get castigated, as most recently exemplified in Van Meter Pettit's commentary, for being closed off and inaccessible. "You are not welcome to cross the fence" as he put it.

Surely Pettit does not mean to suggest that people should be allowed to wander onto farms, drive or bike around, and hike through paddocks without safeguards and supervision? That has liability and danger to animals, people and businesses written all over it. Unfettered access can't be expected, any more than one would expect to wander through the Georgetown Toyota plant on his own and at his leisure.

And let's be very clear: Bluegrass farms, as beautiful as they are, are indeed our factories.

According to the recent University of Kentucky economic study, one out of every nine jobs in Fayette County is supported by that factory. Our farms and the related economic cluster have a $2.4 billion annual impact on the local economy and lead the nation in equine productivity.

Farms are not in the touring business. The horse farms, as romantically genteel as many believe them to be, are a highly demanding, sophisticated and competitive global enterprise. Take your eye off the ball and you're out of business.

Despite the harsh business realities of the equine and general agriculture industries, many of the significant farms do allow tours. You will find many farms with a closed-gate mentality, but there are plenty that make a huge effort to accommodate the public.

A large, locally owned and independent touring industry has evolved that accommodates visitors and helps farms organize the logistics and time for the tours. If you call Darby Dan Farm on Old Frankfort Pike, for example, and ask for a tour during peak season, you will be referred to one of six companies that come to the farm almost daily.

On tours, Darby Dan provides a stallion show, a brief history, an explanation of breeding shed operations and a walk through the cemetery. Tours may just ask for a drive-through, but the point is that Darby Dan alone welcomes about 4,000 non-industry visitors every year, for which the farm receives no compensation.

Bluegrass Tours itself accommodates 20,000 visitors a year.

WinStar, Claiborne, Three Chimneys — to name a few major and popular farms — have their own visitor programs (Three Chimneys estimates 20,000 visitors a year). Stonestreet Farm had a wonderful 30-minute visit with equine superstar Rachel Alexander before her illness. It included pictures, petting and cookies in her likeness.

Each farm handles visit requests differently, but many do make a serious effort to promote the goodwill of agriculture and the community at large.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group supported by developers, neighborhood associations and many farmers, offered a well-organized day of visits to horse farms at nominal cost, with first-rate exposure to operations.

It was a huge effort and expense for the Alliance and dozens of participating farms. Ironically, after three years it was abandoned for lack of local interest.

Fayette Alliance is now promoting the concept of trails along scenic public thoroughfares. Such trails, if done with sensitivity to the "factory," would likely receive support from our equine and general-ag farms. Everyone could enjoy this amenity on their own schedule at no individual cost.

On a parallel track, a group of farm owners has banded together to provide a more comprehensive, organized and easier means to connect the farms to our community and tourists. It's early in development stages, but this is a very serious group that will likely be presenting plans in the next few months.

The point is, the rural community actively promotes and supports public access on farmland, provided it is done responsibly and respects the liability and logistical concerns of our factory.

Lexington's acclaimed Bluegrass is not a "look but don't touch" resource; nearly a million visitors experienced Fayette County's rural area through our park system, farm tours and recreational events in 2012 alone.

And last, let's not confuse the issue of access onto Lexington farms with Boone Creek Adventure's Burgess Carey, and his zip line fight with his neighbors. His zoning battles are independent of the equine and general ag industries and their earnest efforts to grow in concert with the community and not in defiance of it.

At issue:

March 24 commentary by Van Meter Pettit, "A locked-up landscape risks losing public support"

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