American Farm Reinvented

Hybrid crops of tradition and tourism are saving rural culture at
Niederman Family Farm

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler – Your Tour Guide To Fun

Ever expanding suburbs have been squeezing farmland out for generations. Mostly gone are the amber waves of grain that used to grow in vast seas just outside of major population centers. Where seeds once soaked up the sun and rain are now streets named for what they paved over: Strawberry Fields Avenue, Hunting Meadows Road, Vineyard Circle, and so on. Since this transformation of America’s heartland, there’s now a generation of children who can’t think past their local grocer when it comes to where food originates.

Much like mom’s apple pie, the American farm is fast becoming more fable than reality. But the Niederman family is trying to change that!

“Our children and our families are so removed from the farm, they take for granted the significance that agriculture plays in our lives,” said Bethann Niederman, who among other multigenerational family members, runs Niederman Family Farm. This farm sits where the suburbs of Cincinnati and Dayton collide, just west of I-75.

Instead of being a familiar fact of life, agriculture is now something distant and mysterious that needs to be taught. Not in the traditional sense or classroom, however – at least not on Niederman Family Farm.

“We use our working farm to bring education to people, both kids and adults, in a variety of entertaining ways,” said Bethann. “Our nostalgic look at the American farm is slow-paced and allows everyone to connect while doing things together like taking a wagon-ride, milking a cow, playing paintball, or roasting a hot dog over an open fire.”

The decision to reconnect a technologically distracted society to its roots of sustenance was one of need as Bethann and her late husband Bob sat across their kitchen table years ago and pondered how they could continue to survive as a farm family. It was their adaptation to the community changing all around them that sprouted one idea after another. Together, Bethann and Bob set out to open new pastures.

Now, many years after that desperate time, Niederman Family Farm is a year-round Southwest Ohio attraction that draws people by the thousands for tours, fall festivities, paintball, and a whole lot more. While they’ve met great success, the new road they hoed was a difficult venture.

At first, the Niedermans didn’t even realize that they were beginning an agritourism business in addition to maintaining their traditional farming. They were simply kind-hearted and accommodating when community members would ask, “Hey, can we store our boat there?” Or, “Will you let us play paintball in your woods?” Eventually community organizers approached them with larger questions like,“Can we have a 5K Run there?” And, “Will you help us host a Mudathlon?”

Since 1948, four generations of Niedermans have lived and worked on the farm. At one time, three different Niederman families had their own houses and raised kids there.

“Uncle Bob used to run a wagon across the farm to his beef cows. This left a small path through the cornfield from his house to my parent’s house. Because this was his route every day, the path got some mud holes,” said Brian Garver, now the Farm Manager. “I’ll never forget. It was summertime after a big rain. I was just a youngster so when I saw all that mud; I told Uncle Bob that I was going to do a Barry Larkin slide in it. I loved Barry Larkin and the Reds. My mom (Bob’s sister) was standing on the other side of the field at our house. She instantly knew what I was thinking and stepped out the door and yelled across the field, ‘Brian Garver, don’t you dare!’ Uncle Bob looked at me and said, ‘Do it!’ So I did. He had this laugh that came from the gut like a giggle from a kid. When I stood up, already regretting it, Uncle Bob smiled at me in a way that said, ‘She’s going to kill you, but it was worth it.”

Before expanding to agritourism, Brian’s grandparents and Bob’s parents, Robert & Janet Niederman, ran a traditional farm with hogs, dairy cows, chickens, crops of corn, soybeans, and more.

In 1988, Bob and Bethann were married and moved back to this traditional family farm. They continued in Bob’s parents’ footsteps of caring for the animals and crops on top of raising children. As it became more challenging to keep up with the rising cost of farming, Bob and Bethann ventured little by little into the unknown pastures of paintball, farm tours, corn mazes, pumpkin patches, hayrides, and boat storage. It has given the Niedermans great pleasure to provide others with opportunities to play and have fun.

However, in a devastating turn of events, Bob passed away in December 2011 after a hard fought battle with cancer. Bethann and their children felt the best way to honor Bob’s legacy of faith, love, and life was to continue his dream for future generations.

“Uncle Bob was my hero. He was that guy. He was the cool uncle,” said Garver. “He was just a big kid at heart. He would spontaneously decide to pull us in the snow on our inner tubes or plastic sleds behind his four-wheeler. Once he had us going pretty good, he would get a big kick out of taking sharp turns to wipe us out. We could hear that laugh of his as he swung around to get us.”

Then, after a timeout for laughs, Bob would get back to work.

“Uncle Bob taught me to work hard and play hard,” said Brian. “Those moments he’d take to just act like a kid again are special reflections we’ll always have.”

“He loved watching others enjoy themselves here,” added Bethann. “Every vision he had was to create joy in the hearts of others, whether it was building a barn on stilts to house a giant bouncy pillow or training piglets to race. Oh, there are so many things on this farm now that Bob and I laughed about over the kitchen table asking each other, ‘What about this…What about that?’”

Niederman Family Farm isn’t just a place for their family traditions and experiences. Today, many visiting families say it’s where they have formed traditions and experiences as well.

“Hard work has never seemed so much fun,” said Dominic, a third-grade student who had completed the farm tour. “I learned how a farm could give us all that we need in the Food Pyramid.”

Bob’s foresight and innovation are now part of his legacy. As visitors build their memories on the farm, Bob’s memory lives on.

Agritourism was initially meant to augment the traditional farm operation. It grew unexpectedly to eclipse some conventional revenue streams. One conventional business operation that just wasn’t paying the bills anymore was the Niederman’s dairy operation. So the dairy cows were sold off for time to be better spent on areas that were blossoming.

“These were hard decisions,” Bethann explained. “The dairy cows were a part of this farm’s livelihood for 50 years.”

Still, Niederman Family Farm has a strong traditional backbone. Brian’s brother, Kurt Garver, came back to the farm to manage that side of things. Although the dairy business was sold off, Kurt farms the corn and soybeans now. He also raises beef cows.

There is one dairy cow that remains on the farm. Thousands of school children milk her every spring and fall as part of the beloved farm tours. Her name is Bessie, and she moos a lot, even though she is mechanical. When kids squeeze her udder, they are filling buckets of water, not milk.

Many of these school kids are in seventh heaven when they visit the farm. It’s easy to see that the experiences they have there are going to remain with them for quite some time. There’s a lot to be learned about agriculture, and Niederman Family Farm has proven to be a great classroom.

“Some youngsters are surprised to hear that there’s no such thing as a chocolate cow, or that fruits and vegetables aren’t grown right there at the supermarket,” Brian said. “I explain that somewhere right now, a farmer is getting ready to harvest oranges in Florida because they grew all season and are ripening. It’s about then that a lightbulb goes off, not just for the kids, but for the adults, too.”

Many consumers don’t think about what goes into the food that they eat. They don’t realize that it took two years to raise the steer that is so often thrown away. One of the purposes of these tours is to reconnect people with their ecosystem. They are designed to plant and grow seeds in minds, which will hopefully pollinate other minds.

Ever since the early days, the Niederman family has given tours of their farm. But long ago, the tours were on a much smaller scale and done on a volunteer basis. Around 2001, Bethann and Bob decided to take it several steps further and make it a part of their business. So they hired staff, added wagon rides, and created enhanced learning stations. They wanted to capture that wow factor as kids stopped and stared with wonder in their eyes.

“We run a working farm and use agritourism to bring a unique educational opportunity to kids in an entertaining way,” Bethann Niederman said.

Niederman Family Farm meets many of Ohio’s common core requirements for grades K-6. The subjects of science and social studies are two main ingredients that are worked into the Niedermans’ educational mix.

Each station has a purpose and is led by a paid staff member. In the small animal barn with bunnies and chicks, they talk about eggs and the life cycle of a chicken. Kids get to touch the soft little farm animals, but don’t worry parents; students are required to use hand sanitizer after every station.

In the loft of a barn, kids can walk through a bale maze to a brightly painted and towering food-rainbow. There they talk about farmers and the food that they produce for people to survive. There’s also a soil lesson where kids learn how different vegetables or strawberries grow. Another station features Bessie, the fiberglass cow along, with the old milk parlor where milking used to be performed.

Tractor-pulled wagon rides allow everyone to enjoy the scenery all across the farm. The barn on stilts is where kids get to burn off all of that pent-up energy by jumping on a giant bouncy pillow. Also, the farm has a picnic pavilion which seats hundreds. Adjacent to it is a climbing hill with tunnels, playsets, toys in the sand, and other fun pastimes.

When the new farmhands are finished with an honest day’s work and have filled their heads with newfound knowledge, a piece of the farm can follow them back to their classrooms. Special teaching aids, programs, and agri-learning tools prepared in traveling kits for teachers help continue the lesson long after leaving the farm.

Eventually in 2001, Bethann and Bob decided to try their first corn maze and pumpkin sale. Year after year, they brainstormed across that kitchen table for something new to add to their growing lineup of fall fun. The corn maze has since become a major production with its intricate designs, scavenger hunts, and trivia stations. One year, Bob had “Happy Birthday Bethann” secretly cut into a corner of the maze to surprise his wife with a flyover so she could see her huge birthday card. Every year there’s at least one wedding proposal on the farm. It’s often in the corn maze.

One of Bob’s zaniest ideas was to add pig racing to the season-long fall festival. It remains such a big hit, Bethann now trains the pigs to race before an audience who cheers them on. A new group of piglets is needed every year because, face it, 200-pounders just aren’t going to cooperate.

“It takes patience. The first couple of days don’t go so well. The pigs want to stop, go back or wander off,” chuckled Bethann. “To make them move forward takes a while.”

The whole thing in training pigs is that you don’t want them to learn that going back is an option. Bethann needs help over the first few days to block the pigs from reversing course so that they know that there is only one way around the track. Once they realize that there are always cookies at the end, they become much more motivated.

All of the efforts are worth it come fall festival time. People line up alongside the short fence which curves like a horseshoe to watch. It connects one pen to another. At the ring of the dinner bell, the cute little pigs dart from the starting gate and run – fast. The belly-busting laughter of spectators is heard along with the squealing delight of the pigs. It’s a sight to behold.

Screams and laughter also echo from that barn on stilts. This unique creation is 70 by 120-feet with a long and wide jumping pillow measuring 40 by 60 feet. It’s designed so that the fun can be enjoyed rain or shine, and always have fresh air flowing through the barn. It’s a popular party amenity as it has a 24 by 70-foot observation deck, complete with PA system throughout to efficiently communicate with large groups or play music.

Come fall-time, the whole farm is in full autumn swing with a wide variety of things to do. Old-fashioned water pumps send racing rubber ducks back and forth. Groups square off for tug of war contests. There’s big farm equipment, such as a combine to climb into for photo ops. Both horse-drawn and tractor-drawn wagon rides run nonstop. Kids enjoy the farm animal viewing areas featuring goats, turkeys, chickens, rabbits, and other livestock. There’s also a large field with scattered pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, perfect for carving jack-o’-lanterns.

The Niedermans have added all kinds of creative touches throughout the years. Heck, there’s even Human Foosball where people are part of the traditional tabletop game, swinging on a bar and kicking a ball at the goal. There’s also volleyball, tetherball, throwing challenges, Hoppy Horse Corral, long tube swings for the whole family to ride, and a sound garden where kids can knock on old pots and pans.

“By far the most repeated quote by guests is, ‘This is the best day ever!’” said Bethann. “When the kids don’t want to go home, then we’ve done our job.”

The fun extends well into the evenings with bonfire pits. Groups can gather for roasting hot dogs or making S’mores. People can cozy up under the moonlight for a good ghost story, take a starlit wagon ride, or navigate the corn maze with flashlights. There’s nothing like a crisp autumn night on a farm.

On top of this, one of the best things about the fall fest is the food. Across Niederman Family Farm, there are three great stops. The main pavilion has it all: hot apple cider, hot cocoa, kettle corn, funnel cakes, homemade caramel apples, and other fall staples. For a meal, mouths will water over the chicken strips, hamburgers, chili, french fries, and nachos.

A true Niederman specialty is their homemade donuts, which can be found at a county fair style concession stand. The cinnamon-sugar ones, to quote a happy customer, “are to die for!”

Then there’s the marketplace. Inside this barn, conveniently located by the parking area, is an opportunity to take the farm experience home. The hottest sellers are the local honey, jams, and jellies. The Niedermans work with a nearby orchard to bring in the pumpkins, apples, apple cider, and salsa.

It takes about 150 employees in total to work the farm during autumn.

“We are a family farm and actually live here. So while our corn maze guests might be taking a horse-drawn wagon ride, they could very well see Kurt harvesting in an adjacent field or a grain truck coming or going,” Bethann said. “We answer the phone at all hours of the day. You may get the answering machine, but if someone is around, no matter the time, we’ll pick up the phone well before or after what many consider a normal workday.”

That is especially true for the paintball operation on the farm, as it runs non-stop year-round. Like most things on the farm, it had an organic evolution from a small thought to a major endeavor.

Paintball was introduced to the farm when a teenage Brian and his brothers asked their Uncle Bob if they could shoot their paintball guns in the woods. Of course, Bob said yes. Little did Brian realize that one day he’d be back on the farm running one of the most significant paintball operations in Ohio.

“Bob had the instinct to know that if he could create something that kids enjoyed, they’d come back again and again,” said Bethann. “And those early kids who started playing here are now bringing their kids here.”

Paintball’s origin is commonly believed to have started with just a couple of guys horsing around while at work. Whether they were marking trees or tagging cattle in open ranges where it’s hard to get close to the heads, one day, they turned the guns on each other, and a sport was invented.

Bob dove into the opportunity he saw to meet the growing demand of paintball enthusiasts. He signed up for a paintball safety course having never played the game in his life. Then he added bales of hay and straw, old water tanks, cast off farm equipment and anything else he could rummage to create bunkers for players to seek protection from enemy fire. He also added rental equipment so that anyone could show up and play, which made the fledgling business boom.

“In the early days, when teams were uneven, our daughter Elizabeth – who was only 12-years-old at the time – was recruited no matter where she was on the farm to come play,” Bethann recalled.

When Bob began building better paintball fields, more experienced players took notice and came to the farm as well. Today, people of all ages come to Niederman Family Farm to play paintball. It draws bachelor parties, church groups, corporate picnics, family reunions, youth groups, and walk-ons.

There are currently ten fields (five speedball and five wooded fields). Speedball is a flat field with bunkers made of things like tires, 55-gallon barrels, corrugated piping, old trailers, buses, boats, or cars. One field is considered a professional airball field. It’s a turf field with air-inflatable bunkers. That field can be repositioned very easily for whatever tournament it needs to accommodate. The wooded fields have some man made bunkers, but they mostly utilize the trees, brush, rocks and other natural objects to shoot around. The liquid in paintballs is safe and biodegradable.

“It’s a ton of work, but we host a major scenario game, annually, where hundreds of players come to play one game that lasts all day,” said Brian.

Scenario games have an overall theme. On the hour, various side missions are added into the action. Themes include Indiana Jones, The Civil War, Star Wars, and Clowns vs. Zombies. People come dressed the part. The scenario is laid out by what is called a game master. Missions are delivered to each base on the hour to the general of each team. It can be to protect something for a limited time, or to obtain something from the enemy and bring it back.

Referees are on every field to enforce safety with strict game rules. The fields are open on weekends year-round, and are lighted to allow playing well into the night. There is also a fully stocked pro-shop on site. In addition, there’s a custom website where you can order anything you need from Paintball Country on Niederman Family Farm.

The farm is also popular for corporate team building, using paintball and other farm activities, all of which require working together to make the experience happen.

“We have been in business long enough where we can make group experiences unique,” Bethann said. “We can take care of all of the food and activities so a group can just show up to build camaraderie and have fun.”

Niederman Family Farm can accommodate any size group for retirement parties, birthday parties, church retreats, mom’s clubs, scout troops, school groups, daycare centers and homeschool groups. Don’t worry about the details. That’s what farmhands are for. No matter if it’s a party for 20 or 300, it promises to be an unusual and remarkable experience.

The farm also has a wedding venue, bed and breakfast, and hosts an annual Christmas walk, compliments of Robert and Janet Niederman.

“Our futures are much brighter because of Bob’s foresight and legacy in taking the farm in a different direction, as opposed to continuing to only focus on traditional farming, which remains a strong part of our farm life here,” Bethann Niederman said.

The Niederman family continues to adapt, educate, entertain, and grow experiences for their guests throughout the year, every year. As a farming family in its fourth generation, they have a lot of knowledge to share. They take pleasure in offering insight to today’s farms as well as a nostalgic look back at farming in America.

“There have been many struggles and triumphs on this farm. Faith is very important to us. It’s pretty much who we are,” said Bethann. “Our biggest privilege is serving and being a part of families as they forge their remembrances for generations to come.”

Niederman Family Farm is located at 5110 LeSourdesville-West Chester Road in Liberty Township, Ohio between Dayton and Cincinnati. Their website is www.niedermanfamilyfarm.com.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler – Your Tour Guide To Fun

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