How To Transition From Row Crop To AgriTourism Business

08:03AM Nov 22, 2019
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A side venture takes center stage on Indiana farm and brings home the next generation.
( Gronde Photography )

With Christmas just around the corner, you might be venturing out to find that perfect Christmas tree. Not too tall, short or wide, it has to fit just right in your house — but who cultivates that perfect tree?

Tom and Kerry Dull, lovers of the Christmas season, saw a void in their middle-Indiana community when it came to Christmas trees. In 1985, the couple planted their first batch of trees, and today they host thousands of families on their farm every year.

“Our intention was to hopefully save enough money from selling the trees to put our kids through college, and it worked,” Tom says. “Today we sell wreaths and tree stands and we've added a gift shop, B&B, catering business, corn maze, pumpkin patch, recreational facility and event business.”

What started as a side project has propelled itself to the forefront of the Dull family’s focus. Their agritourism business now supports the Dulls and provides income for both their children. The family also employs 120 people in their local community for seasonal work.

Dull Barn, Gronde Photography
C: Gronde Photography

Right Place, Right Time

Dull’s Tree Farm in Thorntown, Ind., is 35 minutes northwest of Indianapolis. Their prime location and strategic marketing has made the farm a family destination. 

Tom grew up on a corn, soybean, cattle and hog operation. In 1980, after graduating from Purdue with a degree in ag economics, Tom returned to the farm. He and Kerry joined the operation just as interest rates were spiking, which put their plans to expand the farm on hold.

“That’s when Kerry and I decided to look into Christmas trees,” Tom recalls. “It’s a natural extension for me, a nature lover, and it was a good opportunity because we knew how far we had to travel to get a tree.”

Gift Shop, Gronde Photography
C: Gronde Photography

Profit Centers

Throughout the years, they produced row crops alongside the agritourism business. They converted several small fields to pumpkins and evergreen trees.

Yet, the agritourism business eventually lapped the row crop business. In 2018, the Dulls retired from production agriculture and sold their farm machinery. 

Lucas Dull, Tom and Kerry’s son, joined the farm five years ago. He added the pumpkin patch and corn maze, and continues to bring ideas. 

With each expansion, and the eventual step away from traditional row crops, the Dulls faced risk. They carefully weighed each step.

“We asked: What will we regret more?” Lucas says. “Not doing it and wondering what would have happened, or doing it and failing? If you try, you’ll learn from it.”

Before taking risks, consider what it means for your overall business. Weigh the options and consider the best- and worse-case scenarios, coaches Moe Russell, president of Russell Consulting Group.

“Don’t get into a business you don’t know much about, unless you can learn in a very steep learning curve, and be willing and able to hire talent you don’t have,” he says. 

The operation’s diversification has allowed several family members to bring their expertise back home. Lucas and his wife, Dana, work full-time for the farm and his sister, Erin, a physical therapist, helps with event planning and trees part time. 

Family, Gronde Photography
C: Gronde Photography

Ear to the Ground

The Dulls’ business has evolved over the years, matching customer demand. “We followed the clues about what people were interested in,” Tom explains. “We didn’t plan to be caterers, for example, but people started asking for it, and we saw the demand and followed it.”

The Dulls are now well-versed in areas such as liability insurance and zoning laws. With each new venture, they evaluate the pros and cons.

“Before we try something new, we give it due diligence,” Tom says. “That makes it seem a little less risky. If it doesn’t work, we’ll stop and try something else.”

For example, when the Dulls started growing trees, they had zero experience. They visited with other Indiana growers and joined the National Christmas Tree Association to expedite their learning curve.

Pumpkins and trees, Gronde Photography
C: Gronde Photography

Enduring Legacy

After working for 40 years to build their farm’s legacy, Tom and Kerry’s focus now is on the future. They are leaders in this area, as 64% of farmers and ranchers don’t have an estate plan, according to Shannon Ferrell, ag law professor at Oklahoma State University.

“With a sound plan and a good team, these transition challenges can be championed,” Ferrell says.

Tom and Kerry’s advice: Don’t wait. “Everyone knows it needs to be done so bite the bullet and get your plan done,” Tom recommends. “It’ll take time, effort and funds to do the legal work, but it’s a good feeling knowing what the future of the farm will be.”

Five years from now, Lucas will own a 50% stake in the farm, with his parents owning the other half. While Tom and Kerry plan to stay in the business for the foreseeable future, they both understand as they age, they might want to be less involved. Because of planning, if a major health issue or accident arises, they’re confident the farm will be in good hands.

Dull Tree Farm, Gronde Photography
C: Gronde Photography

Pay it Forward

The Dulls’ proactive planning is helping Lucas develop his own vision for the farm and receive mentorship from his parents. Not being bound by tradition or a small business scope is paying off. 

“I’m excited we’re constantly managing this giant list of ideas and adding to the farm,” Lucas says. “There are so many things we can add in the next two to five years, and it’s exciting to think about which ones we’ll tackle and how we’ll overcome inherent challenges.”

Over the past 40 years, Tom and Kerry have built a multigenerational  farm with a legacy of tradition that spans not only their family, but the thousands who’ve made it their tradition to visit the Dull Christmas farm every year. As they look at their much-expanded farm, they’re thankful for all they have.

“It’s all God’s, he’s just letting us use it for a while,” Tom says. 

What’s his advice as we near Christmas? “Don’t forget to brighten up your Christmas with a real Dull tree.” 


Don’t delay in creating or updating your succession plan. Join leading experts at the Legacy Project Conference, Jan. 28 in Chicago. Register at TPSummit.com 


Read more about succession planning and business here:

Assess Your Succession Planning Advisers

5 Ways to Keep the Family Farm Farming

Chris Barron: Reset Your Team’s Trajectory