By LAUREN WALKER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Preserving historic barns does more than maintain the beauty of the state’s rural landscape — it has economic benefits as well, preservation experts say.
Steve Stier, president of the Michigan Barn Preservation Network, a Mount Pleasant-based advocacy group, said barn preservation adds to the economy because it often creates new businesses, agritourism destinations and jobs.
The organization promotes the rehabilitation of old farm buildings for agricultural and other uses.
Stier said that since most historic barns require a lot of expensive upkeep, the network encourages an entrepreneurial spirit so owners think of new uses for their buildings and ways that their barns could generate revenue to cover maintenance costs.
“We’ve had barns converted to all sorts of different uses from churches to homes to feed stores to rental buildings where people can have weddings,” he said.
He said that while non-traditional uses for old barns such as office space conversion are popular, many historic barns are still used for their original purposes on farms.
He said that with increased interest in local food sources, wineries and agricultural practices, farms no longer exist solely to produce crops or raise animals, but as an educational resource for people who don’t live in rural areas.
“It’s an attraction because folks from the city bring their kids to the farm to see how agriculture and their food is actually produced,” he said.
That interest in agricultural practices has promoted a number of innovative agritourism destinations across the state, said Amy Seng, director of the Ludington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She said people like to experience things, so embracing the experience of a community’s agricultural assets is important.
For the past three years, the agricultural heritage of old barns has been showcased in the Barns & Byways Tour. Participants visit a number of historic barns in the Mason County area.
Seng said the event has been a success, which she attributes not only to its 400 average participants but also to barn owners.
“The barn owners are very open and they’re very excited and passionate about showing their property and their barn. Whenever that happens, the passion alone helps the success of the event,” she said.
A similar passion among owners in other counties has led to the success of another type of agritourism destination that celebrates rural lifestyle and historic barns — quilt barn trails.
A quilt barn trail is a leisurely touring excursion that self-guides visitors to barns throughout a region.
A quilt barn is distinguished by a large wooden block painted to resemble a traditional quilt pattern and mounted on the side of the structure.
The first quilt barn trail was created 10 years ago in Ohio, according to Cindi Van Hurk, vice president of the Alcona County Quilt Trail, the first in Michigan.
Since then, trails in the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City and Osceola County have been established.
Evelyn Johnson, creator of the Quilt Barn Trail of Old Mission Peninsula and author of Barns of Old Mission Peninsula (Eladybug Publications), said there’s no financial incentive for owners to participate in the program, but they do so out of passion.
“Sometimes it’s kind of a pain when people are driving in their yards to look at their quilt, but they love it. They’re all extremely glad that they’ve got this and are just plain proud of it,” she said.
Both Johnson and Van Hurk said there’s no way to count how many visitors tour self-guided trails, so the only way the can measure the trails success is by the number of maps printed.
Johnson recently printed 10,000 maps for the Old Mission Peninsula Trail and Van Hurk said the Alcona County Quilt Trail ordered 3,000 brochures and they plan to order another 3,000 this year.
Considering the volume of brochures distributed and the number of positive reactions, Johnson predicted that barn quilt trails will grow in popularity.
Stier agreed and said the emphasis on showcasing barns will have positive impacts on heritage preservation and the economy.
“In these times people, want to think about things that are more simplistic and more back-to-the-earth and having the simple life. The farmsteads and barns represent that, so I think more people are inclined to give that more thought,” he said.
He added that agritourism events benefit small economies by inspiring owners to fix their barns, which requires hiring people and buying materials.
Van Hurk also said that while the trails increase awareness of agricultural preservation heritage, benefits for local economies are just as good, if not better.
“We have businesses on the trail — we have one place that was a honey farm and the owner said it’s been terrific for her business.
“One of the goals was to promote small businesses along the way, and it’s worked very well. We’re pretty pleased,” she said.