Merry and bright: Kelsay Farms opens up for the holidays

For the past 15 years, families have been making autumn memories at Kelsay Farms, wandering through the corn maze, climbing over the hay bale mountain and taking part in a wealth of other attractions during the fall.

The Whiteland farm is extending the fun this holiday season, hoping to spread cheer through what they hope is a new tradition for local residents.

“When we sold the dairy a few years ago, the farm changed. It was a quiet place, where it used to be bustling,” said Amy Kelsay, whose family owns Kelsay Farms. “The idea behind this is to bring life back to the farm, and create an experience for families to laugh and enjoy and be together, to celebrate the season and what’s really important.”

The Holiday Stroll is a new event at Kelsay Farms this year — turning one of Johnson County’s most popular agritourism sites into an illuminated wonderland. Thousands of lights cover the farm, and more than 30 special displays offer a perfect place for a selfie or Christmas card photo.

More than 100 trees are arranged throughout the rural setting, and people can enjoy hot chocolate while they wander, stopping to warm themselves by the bonfires. Live carolers add to the holiday atmosphere, and a special holiday shop the first weekend of December will feature area vendors selling all kinds of gifts.

The offerings will still be a perfect place for parents and young kids to gather, but also offer something special for teens and adults looking for festivities as well.

“It can be a place for families to come, but also targeting the teenage audience more than I do in the fall,” Kelsay said.

Kelsay Farms has been an important piece of the agricultural history of the county for more than 180 years. Six generations of the family have farmed the land, growing row crops and vegetables, having a working dairy and raising swine.

In 2006, the Kelsay family had an idea — opening up the farm to the community at harvest time to celebrate the end of the growing season and learn a little more about modern agriculture.

The move has proven to be a massive success. Weekends in the fall are packed as families come out to pick out pumpkins, take hay rides and enjoy attractions such as the Moo Choo Express, a kids train that circles the farm fields.

Thousands of students across Johnson County come out for field trips, where they learn where the food their parents buy at the grocery store actually comes from.

The fall experience has wonderful for the farm, Kelsay said. But as her own children grew older, she wondered if the experience could be expanded.

“The whole business has grown along with our own kids. When our kiddos were little, we would create things in the fall that they’d like to play on,” Kelsay said. “My daughters are now in high school, and I hear them wondering about places to go and hang out with their friends.”

One of the things her daughters like to do is finding seasonal activities, and getting plenty of photographs to post on social media. But the past few holiday seasons, they were having trouble finding a place to go that was reasonably priced and was a place you could walk through, instead of driving through.

So in 2020, Kelsay came up with an experience they could do at the farm. She pitched it to the family to see their thoughts.

“We would create a walk-through holiday experience, with lights and trees and backdrops for photos opportunities. We’ll do campfires and hot cocoa and cookie decorating, so you can not only take pictures but experience the holiday season a little bit.”

The family agreed it was a good idea, and they started planning. In January, they purchased as many trees, lights and other supplies as they could find, taking advantage of after-season sales to load up. Over the course of two days, they bought more than 100 artificial trees that will become the backbone of the experience.

Then they brainstormed the different backdrops and sets that would draw people in. The thought of equipment and items they had on the farm that could be repurposed, such as older equipment and tractors. At auctions, they were able to purchase antique sleighs to arrange at different spots.

The Santa scene is themed around Central Park, painted to appear that the jolly old elf is meeting with families outdoors. A mantle scene incorporates a Kelsay heirloom Christmas tree.

“We’ve taken a lot of things that are have come from our family, and are special to us, and incorporated those into it,” Kelsay said.

Kelsay’s daughters and friends spent the summer building sets, spray painting tress, hanging lights on ladders and putting the experience together.

Having everything ready for the Holiday Stroll, particularly since the family has really done the whole thing themselves, has been incredible, Kelsay said.

“It’s awesome, because now we’re seeing it come to life,” Kelsay said. “Probably the most rewarding thing about this is doing it with my own family. I’ve seen the creative side of my own kids, and watch them be involved.”

The Holiday Stroll debuted Friday, and runs every weekend through Dec. 23. The experience will also be open during the week on Dec. 20-23.

Tickets are available online, and people encouraged to buy their admission in advance, Kelsay said.

“It’s a new event, and the capacity will be a little bit different than in the fall,” she said. “It will help us plan if people buy them online beforehand. We will sell them at the gate, but I strongly encourage people to buy online, just in case we reach a capacity level where they can’t be sold anymore at the gate.”