Agriculture tourism turns top shelf next year when 21c Museum Hotel founders Steve Wilson and Brown-Forman heiress Laura Lee Brown expect to launch their renowned Hermitage horse farm as a tourist attraction.

Having removed the “no visitors” sign from the quarter-mile driveway, the couple laid out a new vision of Oldham County farmland preservation.

No corn mazes, petting zoo or pumpkin patch are in store. Instead, a new kind of Kentucky theme park will draw conventioneers and Kentucky Derby tourists.

Barn 8, one of 52 structures on the 700 acres, will become a farm-to-table restaurant of the same name led by a yet-unidentified chef from the East Coast.

“I am enticed by a chef who is famous to bring attention to the project right away,” Wilson said in an interview.

From “seed to sip,” visitors will learn bourbon production in another building while sampling local distillers’ blends.

The thoroughbred operation from whence sprang 1953 Kentucky Derby winner Dark Star will open its barn doors east of the 1847 antebellum big house.

While not disclosing development costs, Wilson described “a legacy project” with few equals worldwide, a home to art installations as well as a rural refuge for families to ramble or picnic.

A quarter mile deep, a rural conservation easement will guarantee motorists everlasting vistas of pasture for the 1.5-mile length of Hermitage abutting Route 42. West of the restored brick mansion with a white-pillared front porch, a garden complex will host the “Bourbon Experience” and the century-old hay barn where guests dine in the former stables of dairy cows while chefs labor in open kitchens. Bison, heirloom hogs and eggs will be sourced from Woodlands Farm, where Brown and Wilson reside nearby.

As a child growing up on the Prospect farm that became the Sutherland subdivision, Brown said she still grieves development in Oldham County, adding that after that farm’s sale, her family returned to purchase 50 acres of the Ohio River bottomlands to prevent its development into a marina. Instead, that land is now the public Hays Kennedy Park in Prospect.

At the first zoning meeting Wednesday night, Wilson said local residents were elated to learn Hermitage would not turn from farmland into rooftops.

“When they found out we weren’t building houses, they broke into applause,” he said. “There was so much angst about what we might be doing here. There was a lot of relief.”

Inspirations include Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a culinary destination 30 miles north of New York City led by renowned farm-to-table chef Dan Barber, Wilson said. There, a “grazing, pecking and rooting” experience is available via a $238 per person prix fixe menu while families with children dine on “farm-fresh” lattes or cafe fare at an adjacent cafe.

While that model leans a tad pricey, Wilson said a nearer vision is already embodied at Blackberry Farm in the Smoky Mountains foothills of Tennessee. That 4,200-acre luxury retreat offers hiking, fishing and leisure on a farm with three restaurants hosting a chef, cheesemaker, butcher, “jam lady,” chocolatier and sommelier, to name a few.

Groundbreaking arrives early next year, the beginning of a bet calculated on the number of visitors to the Kentucky Derby Museum and the hundreds of thousands of tourists who frequent the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

“There’s a growing interest in local food,” Wilson, 68, said as Brown, 75, stood by. “There’s a demonstrated desire to visit distilleries.”

Harvard-trained architect Haviland Argo, who will lead the project, has risen through the ranks of the 21c chain overseeing construction of the flagship on West Main Street downtown and its Cincinnati cousin.

For starters, Argo is designing the renovation of the century-old hay barn into a 14,000-square-foot restaurant, surrounding gardens and 125 parking spaces nearby. Next week, Brown and Wilson said they are off to visit Longwood Gardens in suburban Philadelphia, a pastoral institution where visitors ramble on the former estate of the DuPont family.

Hermitage Farm “will bring together all of the things that we are interested in,” said Wilson, whose decade-old 21c boutique hotel and museum chain unveils its latest outlet in Nashville next spring. “Now that we’ve done that, we are coming back to the farm, giving it new life without developing it and providing a place for people who have never had a farm experience to enjoy that.”

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This article was written by Jere Downs from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Photo Credit: Horses outside a barn at Hermitage farm. The property is being turned into a next-gen agritourism destination by the founders of 21c Hotels. Hermitage Farm