Meet Kyle Vesperman, the driving force behind Vesperman Farms, in this engaging episode of the Driftless Makers podcast. Host Kate Koziol takes you on a journey through Kyle's remarkable story, from transforming a simple pumpkin patch into a thriving agritourism hotspot in Lancaster, Wisconsin. With an eye for innovation and a dedication to crafting exceptional experiences, Kyle shares his insights into creating a bustling business that includes everything from ice cream trucks to event hosting. Join us as we uncover the secrets behind Vesperman Farms' success, delve into the world of agritourism, and explore the intersection of entrepreneurship and creativity.
[Koziol]: Welcome to the Driftless Makers podcast. I'm Kate Koziol. And today we have the pleasure of speaking with Kyle Vesperman from Vesperman Farms, just outside of Lancaster, Wisconsin. Good afternoon, Kyle. Tell me a little bit about your world.
[Vesperman]: Well, I run Vesperman Farms. Depending on what you know of us, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We started as a pumpkin patch and then added a corn maze. Seven years ago, we built an event barn and then started offering food and things like that. And then after we built that event barn, people then started asking about hosting weddings. So we host quite a few weddings throughout the years. And then the kitchen also gave us an ability to expand our offerings of what we offer not only during fall season, but then in 2019, we started playing around with making ice cream. And so now we make ice cream in the kitchen on some of our days off. Or I guess they're no longer our days off. They're our ice cream days. And we take that ice cream and we sell it not only during our fall season, but we also have two ice cream trucks that sort of crisscross the Southwest Wisconsin, Northwest Illinois, Northeastern Iowa area throughout the summer, visiting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of locations between May and June, July and in August.
[Koziol]: Anyone who's not been out there, It's a beautiful setting. The event barn is gorgeous. There's just one fun thing after another. It's sort of a full season of fun on Vesperman Farms.
[Vesperman]: Yep, Yep. Lots of thousands and thousands of families make their trek to our farm every fall to go out and do the corn maze and visit the animals. And of course over the years we've added more and more activities and then there's the pumpkin patch and the food and the donuts and the caramel apples. And so there's a lot of families that turn it into a yearly fall retreat, an afternoon of fall fun. I mean we'll have families that'll spend hours and hours out there and and that's what we've tried to build and grow and and so, yeah, and that's exactly what happens out there.
[Koziol]: So tell me a little bit about this, Kyle. So your family has been on the farm, I believe you're a century farm, is that correct?
[Vesperman]: Yes. My family has owned the farm since 1900 and I am the 5th generation to manage and own the farm. But for most all those years we were just traditional. I mean, obviously when you start out what farms used to be was you had, you know, a little bit of everything and we had horses and cattle and chickens and one of the old barns used to have just one or two stanchions when all you milked was one or two cows for the family. And we've had all sorts of things. And through the decades, we've done all sorts of different things, Dad, for a few years, they're raised commercially, like peas when there used to be a processing plant in Cobb and we raised some sweet corn. And then in the 1980s, during some of that downturn in the farming economy, Mom and Dad started diversifying and getting into raising vegetables. And so I'm the youngest of four. And so it was something that my siblings could do, us kids could all go out and participate in. And we started raising vegetables and doing and going to farmers markets way, way before it is the crazy trend that is now. I mean you're talking like 1986, 1987 when dad was doing some of this. Fast-forward up to like mid 1990s, 94-95, was also farming full time along with this at that point he was had a farrow to finish hog operation and then he was raising some beef cattle and then and farming several 100 acres at the time and he decided to get out, sell the animals, get out of farming full-time. By that point, my older siblings, they had decided that taking a job at Hardee's or A&W in town was much easier than picking vegetables. And so they got out of the vegetable business. And at that point I was still, gosh, that I would have been maybe 12 or 13. So we sort of stopped raising some of the vegetables for a while, but I picked up an interest in that when I was probably 14 or 15 raising a few of the bigger crops, vegetable crops that would have been sweet corn and pumpkins. And so just like I mean this time of year, I don't know when this is going to publish, but it's it's early August and you know right now I think there's kids outside here on the square in Lancaster selling sweet corn and you see these roadside stands. We've got a lot of Amish and that that sells sweet corn now. But that's actually where I got my start with selling, selling sweet corn actually right in front of this building here on the square in Lancaster. I started doing that when I was 14 or 15. I would go out and pick the corn and had a grandpa that would bring me into town and after I picked the corn in the morning and I'd sell it and we'd go back out to the farm and I'd get up the next morning and pick again and I did that through most of high school. The other thing, Grandma and grandpa lived right near the hospital in Lancaster, which if you know anything about that, it's right on the Main drive highway in Lancaster. And my grandparents had this great, big beautiful yellow house that sat right on the Main Street in Lancaster and had all this traffic. And mom and dad had started selling pumpkins there on Grandma's front yard. And that's kind of how I say I got my start into the pumpkin business as I started out selling pumpkins in my grandma's front yard. And I did that through high school as just a sort of sideline project. And then after I graduated high school in 2001, I started to see this sort of ag tourism thing kind of taking off. And I thought, well, maybe instead of me picking the pumpkins and bringing them into town, if I could bring the people out to the farm. The farm is just three miles outside of Lancaster, bring people out to the farm and give them a wagon ride to the pumpkin patch. It's way easier to set up picking all the pumpkins and bringing them into town if I just take the wagon load of people out to the patch and let them pick the pumpkins and bring them in. And so that's how we really started. We did that for I think a year or two. And then in 2003 we started with our first corn maze. First I had to just kind of figure that thing out and get people interested in the idea of, you know, coming out, walking through, paying to walk through a cornfield that you know was kind of not so. You know, a lot of people kind of laughed and snickered at me with this idea of this is what I was going to do. And it just kept slowly plugging away and we'd get a few 100 people and I think we'd have a good day and it just kind of grew from there and there And after 10 years we decided to add food. And so and then right around that point the people in Dubuque had discovered us and then our crowds just seemed to just take off. That has then led to you know adding the event barn and then just adding these, adding all these other things and these opportunities with we've been able to do and grow our business because of the customers this year we're very excited. We're actually getting ready to celebrate our 20th fall season. We started in 2003 and we are now in 2023, so we're planning and doing some things that will hopefully do to make a little extra fun this fall.
[Koziol]: That's amazing, Kyle. I bet the people that may have been snickering a little bit back in 2003 are not laughing. They're probably eating Vesperman ice cream. They're probably donuts.
[Vesperman]: Yes, exactly. Yes, yes. Or they drive by in the fall season. And you know, I, I know I get some old timers and that you know, they said when you started that I had no idea. You know, I didn't think you were going to get very far. And then and now to drive by on a Saturday afternoon and see the field, the parking lot there that we've, that we have in grass next to the event bar and that when it's full, when it's full, it's 400 cars. It's just absolutely unbelievable to see what [we’ve] done.
[Koziol]: Well, that whole experience. You know, not everybody has a pumpkin patch in their backyard. You grew up there, but many others want that. Let me go pick it. Let me have a cider donut. It takes a purchase from being a purchase into a whole experience, and that resonates with many, many people. So tell me Kyle, if you could go back 20 years, if someone else is thinking of starting their own ag business and agrotourism, whether it's a farm stand or some more developed experience, two or three tips, anything that you think, Oh my gosh, I wish I would have…
[Vesperman]: So I guess don't don't be afraid to try stuff. I I think the biggest thing is after something has happened, whether it's a success or a failure, and I've have way more failures than I do, successes, you need to really evaluate why it failed. Maybe the timing was wrong. Maybe the offering was wrong. Maybe you're just ahead of your time on your ideas because the crowd just wasn't big enough yet. You know there are things that we do now that I'll tell the staff and I'm like yeah, you know we tried that in 2011, but in 2011 we might have only been getting you know or 400 people and doesn't make a whole lot of sense to do it there. Whereas now on a good weekend we might we might see upwards of people and now that that idea now makes sense that didn't make sense back then or just also the market has just changed and what people are looking for and what they what they like has changed and and you know it's just I can't ever I can't tell you what's going to work or not going to work. Not every day idea is a good idea. Not every day idea should be tried but there's plenty of times where if I'm kind of not so sure on it but I got maybe a gut feeling that it might work. I'll say well we'll try it and see what happens. If you're afraid to try something I think just evaluate how much is this going to hurt me if this fails. You know, if I, if I spend 2 or 3k this idea, is that going to hurt me? And in a lot of years, when I was much smaller, yes, that money would have really hurt me. You know, now we've, we've been fortunate where we can try some of these ideas and maybe spend a little bit more on things to see what happens. But that all comes with time, you know, and I think when you're starting out, you know, try things, evaluate your ideas and just make sure whatever you're doing that it's a calculated risk that you can keep going if it does fail. And there's a lot of things
that I do that if it's even a break even, like if we try this idea out and it's a break even, I'm like that's sometimes that's a success because that might lead to something bigger. It sounds like you've tried many things. Some things are work, some things will work in due time.
[Koziol]: What would you say is your greatest surprise? I mean, you've tried many different things. You continue to evolve. Any surprises along the way of things that were wildly successful or a huge bust?
[Vesperman]: Well I'll tell you an ice cream. Okay right now we make a frozen lemonade non-dairy option. They would come to the ice cream trucks in 2020-2021 and they were like, “Do you have a non dairy option? And no. And because it's ice cream and we just try and make really good basic ice cream flavors and if you don't have the dairy in the ice cream, you don't really have ice cream. And but people kept asking, kept asking. So there in the winter of 2021, we we just started looking through some of the recipe books and things and we came up with a with a strawberry lemon ice sort of dessert which I thought like OK, it's not ice cream, but it's going to be an option for those people that come to the window and want non dairy. And so I thought maybe we'll sell a few hundred of these. We make thousands and thousands of those little cups of this strawberry lemonade that I never would have ever thought we were gonna sell that many. It turns out that there's actually pretty big interest in buying it.
[Koziol]: And listening to a customer and giving it a test. And now look where it is.
[Vesperman]: Yeah, exactly.
[Koziol]: Kyle, as you've built the business, especially the ag tourism component of it, how do you reach your audience? Word of mouth is there. You've got a great reputation, but how do you reach new people? What tactics would you recommend for other businesses to reach out and draw people into their business?
[Vesperman]: Not exactly sure here in these last like 24 months or 18 months or so. We
spent a lot of time in the early days of building like a Facebook audience. We don't have nearly as many Instagram followers. We were utilizing some of that social media. We were using that and getting, you know, just tremendous amounts of success that way. You know, Apple went through and made some, some changes to their privacy algorithms, which is fine, but it makes it harder for Facebook and some of those social media sites to get more of our reach that way through paid and unpaid. I mean we've used a lot of paid advertising on those sites for years to help reach people. We'll do some of that again here this fall, but it's been tricky as you can look at all the Instagram data and the Facebook data and that the reach seems to be dropping with some of that stuff. We're still finding it to be very effective. It's just we're constantly evaluating what worked six months ago or two years ago or four years ago. Some of that stuff does still work, maybe not as effectively some of it doesn't work at all but you just just got to keep constantly evaluating things and be willing to try new things. We've done print, we've done billboards, we've done I've tried a little bit of everything. I think, you know, word of mouth is very, very helpful and with word of mouth but you've got to have something that people are willing to talk about. So but that's just because we do all these things and you have such a great experience and people enjoy you knowing what you offer to your customers is so good and so wonderful that other people are willing to talk about it for you. And that goes a lot farther than businesses realize. You come out to the farm, and I don't know if you've got kids, or if you've taken any pictures at the farm. We're actually just discussing this an hour ago with some of my staff about how tall this fall is where we've got families that hunt that down and they want those pictures. Or in some of our photo-ops on the farm, we make sure that we've got, you know, our name on a sign or a billboard behind where people take a lot of photos and if we see a family trying to, you know, do the selfie thing with one hand, we'll stop and offer to take a picture for them. And then I kind of train my staff when you take a picture to frame it where you get a nice family picture, but then make sure you also get our Vesperman Farm sign in there behind it. Generally, those nice photos that are taken by somebody else, those are the ones that those people post to social media about how great their afternoon was. And so then that sort of stuff goes, you know, quite a ways, you know, and also don't be afraid. I'll tell you, like with my ice cream, my strategy when I started ice cream was we, I said I could have ran thousands and thousands of dollars worth of ads trying to explain how good our ice cream was. Or I could just give away thousands of dollars of ice cream for people to try. And so that's what we actually ended up doing in the summer of, yeah, 2019 actually. I do quite a bit of work with People’s State Bank and they've got branches in Kieler, Lancaster, Mount Hope Prairie Du Chien, all around. And I said, hey, can I just go to your parking lots and just give away ice cream to your workers and your people that come through and your customers and that. And we at that time used some of our social media to reach out and say, hey, we're going to be making ice cream. We're doing this, We're going to be at People State Bank in Dickeyville for this hour to this hour. People were showing up and wanted to try the ice cream. And then word started to spread how good it was and I didn't know how I was going to make ice cream and I was going to sell it in the farm during the fall. After that, I had no idea what else I was going to do with the ice cream. I hadn't figured out that idea beyond that. What came from that idea of just trying to promote our ice cream, and we were discovering that people were coming to the Lancaster at People’s State Bank and then coming to the Bloomington People’s State bank, and the Fennimore one. The same people were following us around. And so I thought and I was doing this with a trailer and my van and and a freezer and I thought, you know, and staff were like, we are not going to drive your trailer and van everywhere and sell ice cream. So I said, well, what if I got a truck that we could put ice cream freezers in and just go around and sell ice cream? That's where the idea for the first ice cream truck came from. So in the fall of 2019, after the fall season closed, I was looking for a truck, which I found and then spent that winter transforming that into the first ice cream truck. And that's how the ice cream trucks really came about.
[Koziol]: And the ice cream trucks, they're just so happy looking like even before I have the great ice cream. Just like looking at this happy ice cream truck is already a treat.
[Vesperman]: Yep, and that's by design. You know, we tried to make when I designed them, I wanted something that would be attention grabbing and fun and clean and nice and looking, you know, looking good and and we make sure everybody's, you know, got nice hats and has a nice friendly smile and a nice wonderful attitude. And you know that all goes into your whole not only is the ice cream great, but all of those other things that all goes into your whole experience. It's sort of like look at KwikTrip. What do we all love about Kwiktrips? We love their clean stores, their friendly staff, you know, their product is good and consistent too. And you know just all those things. It isn't just the product. We know the bathrooms are going to be clean. We know the stores are well lit. We know that their equipment is well taken care of. We know that the parking lots are nice. I mean that stuff all matters.
[Koziol]: Absolutely. And finding good partners to work with like your work with People’s State Bank. They're in so many communities and then you know you kind of marry ice cream and People’s State Bank locations and I love that you have ice cream groupies that, like, track you and well I think I could probably talk to you probably another hour about just staffing alone because you're right. It's so important. I mean you can have a great product but if you can't deliver it at a consistent high quality and you know there's a tarnish mark and you don't really want that when you've worked that hard.
[Vesperman]: Exactly. It's more than just the product that I mean the product needs to be good. But the experience that and there's a lot of those little things that that when you see it done really well, it seems so effortlessly but behind the scenes that a lot of details that we're paying attention to make sure that our guests and people that come to our farm and and are so gracious and willing to spend money with us that we give them a wonderful experience, not only just a wonderful product.
Koziol]: Right, and I'll also say and maybe this is just a given but your website is beautiful and it's well done. You've invested in logos that are unique and fresh and yet really helped tell part of the story.
[Vesperman]: We rarely get phone calls of people asking for information because we've put that information out there and we're updating the website. I mean nowadays with basic Weebly and things like that. Like you can go on and you'll see tonight that the, you know, trucks are you know in Dubuque or in Platteville at Music in the Park. And then tomorrow or the next day that'll disappear and the next dates will be up. You know the information is current and we keep constantly updating it and and you know, making information easy for people to find and there's a whole lot of things that go into just making everything happen.
[Koziol]: Right, and it looks sort of like that old, you know, phrase, you know, the duck looks very calm on the top of the water, but below the water it's paddling like a heck just to keep everything moving in the right direction. Any final tip you have, just one tip on how you keep a great team or how do you find great people?
[Vesperman]: Well I think it goes back to I've cultivated a good culture of having some managers that are great to work with and we're getting ready to hire my staff and here in the fall balloon up to 85 people and in this day and age it's being flexible. There are times yes you absolutely have to be here but I also try and hire enough kids and enough part time staff so that we can have some flexibility in what we're doing. When I hire kids I don't always shy away from the ones that are super busy. If they're busy and other things but they really want to work because generally the the busy kids are the ones that are active and doing things are generally the good ones because they are they're wanting to be in band and wanting to be in sports and wanting to do this stuff and and also wanted you know have a job and make some money and and you know they're active you know in math and in the play and things like that. So those are really some great kids. If you find really good employees, work with them to make sure you can keep them around and don't always be like it's my way or the highway, you know. And I think it really comes down to having a good culture of, of being a fun place to work that like, yes, we can laugh and joke around, but then when it's time to work, we all button down and we work and we take everything seriously. We attract a lot of employees. We attract a lot of good employees. We pay our kids very well. Starting wage for me is $13.00 an hour. So know that the ice cream scooper that you're buying your ice cream from is getting paid at least $13.00 an hour and they're taken care of. And I think attracting the good, a good seasonal employee, I just find that it helps to, you know, pay them a decent wage to show them the respect that you want them there to work.
[Koziol]: Absolutely. And then they share their respect down the line.
[Vesperman]: So yeah, generally those kids and then people that are good workers, they generally hang out with other people that are good workers too. And so you start building a reputation of like, well, Vesperman Farms is fun to work at and it's a good place to work And I enjoy working there. And they generally, like I said, people generally know other people that are good workers. And so that's how you kind of build a culture and they're one of one of many things of building a culture, but it's that's part of it.
[Koziol]: Well, we've had the treat of talking with Kyle Vesperman of Vesperman Farms, so be sure to check our show notes at pbii.org/driftless Makers for a link to thevespermanfarms.com website, as well as a transcript of today's conversation. And if you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to leave us a review where possible and follow us on social media or share podcasts with your colleagues or other fellow entrepreneurs. If we're lucky, we'll keep our fingers crossed that we might see the Vesperman Ice Cream Truck at this fall's Makers market September 27th.
[Vesperman]: if we can pull it away from its other duties, but it’s very hard for us.
[Koziol]: I know we might just have to buy our own ice cream and become Junior Vesperman Farm Ice Cream distributors.
[Vesperman]: All my high school kids go back to school then and it becomes hard for us in the fall. Season is open then. Yeah, but they're sorry I interrupted your outro.
[Koziol]: No worries. It's been a treat to talk to you, Kyle. Please visit Vesperman Farms. It's a star in the new Grant County region and it's really taking agriculture and tourism and really showcasing the beautiful Driftless area. So thank you for your time again today, Kyle. I look forward to future conversations with you too.
[Vesperman]: Me too. And thank you for the kind words. We always appreciate that.