Local Agritourism Growing Trend

By Dawnie March 3, 2011

Travelers urged to stop and shop along Highway 99

By Susan Meeker/Tri-County Newspapers

A myriad of signs dot the landscape along Interstate 5, county roads and old highways. They serve no other purpose but to pique the interests of travelers passing from one destination to another.  Signs point to farmers markets, pumpkin patches, olive tasting, dairy farms and produce stands.  From the San Joaquin Valley to the Oregon border, travelers are enticed to stop in communities they pass to walk through a lavender field, find a unique or handmade gift, navigate a corn maze, taste a tree-ripened peach, sample a local wine or pet a baby goat.

But what if farms and ranches stopped being places to stop and started being places to go?  The growing trend in agritourism is doing more than bringing people into community. It is also helping agriculture producers save their farms during tough economic times, while providing entertainment and education to a variety of travelers and consumers, according to North State agritourism partners at a workshop Wednesday in Red Bluff.

Penny Leff, a University of California Cooperative Extension small farm program advisor, calls agritourism any form of income generating activity conducted on a working farm or ranch for the enjoyment and education of visitors.  “Agritourism is a good way for farmers and ranchers to connect with the community and make money doing it,” Leff said. “The main objective is to make the business work.”

All over California, farmers are inviting visitors from around the country to participate in farm camps, harvest festivals, horseback riding, hiking, hunting, bird-watching, tours and farm stand activities like tasting and picking. “It’s all about having something diverse to offer,” said Chris Kerston, of Chaffin Family Orchards near Oroville. Kerston should know, the family-operated business not only offers fresh fruits, grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chickens and eggs, the farm is open for tours, day camps and provides a variety of educational classes from jelly making to butchering techniques.

“We’re going to do what we can to reach people to purchase our products,” Kerston said. “If that means educating them more about our products, we will educate them more. It adds additional revenue while adding a fun new layer to an already existing business.”  Farm stands, farmers markets and agritourist businesses across the North State not only allow local farmers to direct market their products, but offer unique qualities that make customers feel special and distinguish their operations from others.  Orland’s Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Co. and Colusa’s O’Connell Ranch are both family operations enhanced by educational opportunities, specialty products or produce, and by becoming valuable resources for their industries.

You can ride a bicycle-powered blender to whip up a peach smoothy at Arbuckle Farmers Market or enjoy a healthy-eating children’s art show in Willows.  Big Bluff Ranch, located about 25 miles east of Red Bluff, doubles as a cattle ranch and vacation resort where visitors fish, hike, hunt and enjoy the pleasant outdoors.  Wise Acre Farm in Arbuckle combines a produce stand with a petting zoo, gourd art display and pumpkin patch.

Bianchi Orchards in Los Molinos, whose motto is “if it isn’t fun, don’t do it,” lets visitors pick their own walnuts, tour the orchards or purchase a variety of specially products.  “We are close to the monastery so our goal is to enhance agritourism along Highway 99,” said Becky Bianchi-Klinesteker. “It would be great to create a day experience where people can spend time in an orchard or enjoy wine and walnut tasting.”

Most agritourism enterprises are small, but have potential for growth. Others like county fairs and farm festivals are well developed.  The Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina is a working winery that provides weekend retreats, sells one-of-a-kind pottery and gives tours of the Cistercian monastery.

So why has agritourism becoming so popular?  Producers say the added revenue helps them keep their farms viable, but it’s also about sharing their lifestyle with other people, and by creating an atmosphere or theme, it allows customers to take away something special from the experience.  They’re also staking their reputations on their products and services they provide.  “You do it because you love it, and something tells you that others will love it too and be willing to pay for the privilege,” said Frank Dawley, whose Big Bluff Ranch sits nestled in the oak woodlands of the Coastal Range foothills.

It is, after all, how Knott’s Berry Farm grew from a roadside fruit stand in the 1920s to a leading manufacture of a specialty food products (jams and jellies) and one of American’s top amusement parks.  To make ends meet, Walter and Cordelia Knott added homemade pie and eventually a chicken dinner to their small produce stand, and eventually expanded with western-theme amusements like a ghost town and blacksmith, until it grew to be one of California’s biggest attractions.

Although the Buena Park adventure is the state’s most successful agritourism business, no one claims the road to the top is easy.  “Don’t quit your day job,” advises Bob Nash, whose small pumpkin patch on the Old Oregon Trail has evolved to include wagon rides, a petting zoo, an antique tractor show and tractor pulls, corn maze, haunted house and a variety of activities and demonstrations. “It doesn’t happen overnight and it takes a lot of marketing.”

In fact, in the agritourism industry, marketing is key, according to the California Travel and Tourism Commission, which promotes agritourism from dinner trains to farm tours on its website visitcalifornia.com.  “If you have a must see, you need to be on our website,” said Jonelle Tannahill, a California tourism industry leader.

While the Internet has become the top resource for planning and purchasing, it is still the consumer who is the medium or gateway to the local agritourism hot spots in the area, according to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Roadside signs, business cards and brochures, along with a regional guides tied to a website was the next most popular promotion, according to the 2009 survey.  Feature stories, newsletters and paid advertising formed the third tier.  When asked about the effectiveness of all marketing tools, word-of-mouth, websites and feature stories rated the highest, the survey concluded.

Chambers of commerce, visitors and welcoming centers, pamphlets and magazines complete the marketing package, according to Karen Whitaker, of the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association.  “By educating travelers, we can affect their travel plans or extend their stay,” Whitaker said. “If not, we may affect their future plans.”

Talking to city and county planners, doing research, assessing a competitive advantage, understanding the market, finding an angle, navigating the permit and approval process, collaborating with partners, developing a trusted product and marketing it to customers are the steps farmers and ranchers are taking to get first time visitors to their farms — and keep them coming back.

CONTACT Susan Meeker at 458-2121 or [email protected].