by T.W. Burger
Agritourism can have a considerable economic impact in the rural areas of this country. That’s straight from the experts at the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (AgMRC) at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The AgMRC, funded through a USDA grant, describes itself as a provider of “unbiased, science-based marketing information for U.S. farmers and ranchers.”
The organization said that in the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 23,350 farms in the nation provided agritourism and recreation services valued at $566 million. Of the total farms, 3,637 farms indicated gross farm receipts of $25,000 or more, the statement continued.
Tourism directly related to California’s wine industry alone accounts for nearly 21 million visitors and expenditures of $2.1 billion annually, an AgMRC report stated. Those who follow the trend say those numbers continue to grow. Even so, setting up an agritourism operation on a farm can involve tangles of red tape and confusion.
Nowhere is that more true than in California, said Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator for the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Small Farm Program at U.C. Davis.
“We have 58 counties in California, and each basically makes their own rules,” Leff said. “Everything rests on county zoning ordinances, and the responsibility for enforcing those depends on the planning departments in these communities. They are often understaffed, and caught up in overseeing the building of houses.”
Agritourism in all its forms resides firmly in smaller farming operations, not with big corporate operations, she added.
“Those who get into agritourism do it to help make ends meet,” Leff said. “The majority of them in California raise specialty crops, such as honey, fruits, vegetables and nuts, and they can’t afford to stay in business just by doing that.”
The shadow of two very tall old palm trees stretch out across the tabletop-flat fields at the Mike and Nori Naylor property on Road 64 near Dinuba, CA.
“They have been here for who knows how long,” said Nori. “They were here when Mike’s parents bought the farm back in the 1960s. They make great landmarks for people looking for our place.”
She and Mike grow fruit, and run a “farm stay” operation, a sort of bed-n-breakfast idea with some “look, see and learn” activities on the farm as part of the deal.
“We have an organic fruit farm,” Nori said. “We grow peaches, plums and nectarines. We also do U-pick and farm tours.”
The Naylors started their farm stay operation in 2010. They went to the county to see what, if any, hoops they needed to jump through. They got a surprise — the Tulare County officials had no idea.
“They kind of gave us the deer-in-the-headlights look,” said Nori.
Fast forward a few years to the present day. Now there is an umbrella organization for farmers who want to start their own farm stay outfit. Farm Stay U.S. is based in Oregon, but it is a national organization, said Leff.
Scottie Jones of Leaping Lamb Farm in Alsea, OR, is the force behind Farm Stay U.S. The organization, founded by Jones in 2010, is a 501c6 non-profit trade association. Jones also runs her own farm stay.
“Many people might like to have a farm experience without buying the farm,” she said on her website. “Just being on a farm is good for the soul. And each person that stays on a farm helps support a cultural tradition that is under severe economic threat.”
Leff said urban and suburban people don’t come out to visit farms because they don’t want to work hard and get sore and dirty.
“They want a pleasurable experience with family and friends,” she said. “They want to have an adventure, pick apples and walk around with the farmer learning things. City people want to get out of town. They want to meet cool people, hear cool stories. They will buy products, but the reason they come out is for the experience. What the farmers are really doing is selling memories.”
Jones said at least some aspects of agritourism run into the same problems in virtually every county in the nation.
“I think every county tends to do things its own way. In one county, the permit might cost $100; in another it will cost $2,000. It has to do with the county government, how they fund themselves and how grumpy the person you deal with is.”
00020000026F000010C7269,At one agritourism conference she attended in California, Jones said, somebody in the audience asked a panel of county planners if they ever actually talked to one another about the topic. The answer was no.
“I think it’s starting to move forward,” she said. “It has to do with local food thing; people want to know more about where their food comes from. They’re beginning to realize that it’s an opportunity for economic development; we can provide jobs and get people going through our local restaurants. As soon as you start saying ‘rural economic development’, people start paying attention at the county level.”
According to Leff’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Small Farm Program newsletter, county support for agritourism is increasing in many California counties as the economic and educational potential starts to sink in.
• In late June, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously supported an agritourism initiative. Staff was directed to work on reducing regulations that could be barriers for agritourism activities, particularly those offered by micro-breweries using local grains and hops and cheese-producing dairies.
• Riverside County provided funding and other support for a new Riverside County Ag Trail website, launched in February this year. The site features more than 100 stops, spanning 400 miles, including farms, wineries, farm stands, farmers markets, fairs and festivals.
• Yolo County is currently engaged in a process established by the county to suggest revisions to proposed agricultural ordinances before they become law.
• El Dorado County is close to finalizing changes to ordinances governing agritourism that will loosen some current restrictions.
• Butte County adopted the final version of a zoning ordinance with allowances for agritourism in the Unique Agricultural Overlay and in the winery, olive oil, fruit and nut, micro-brewery and micro-distillery production facilities sections.
• Tehama County is now issuing administrative permits — usually simpler and less expensive than major or minor use permits — for many agritourism and nature tourism activities on agriculturally zoned land.
• Glenn County has adopted a single point of contact, which means that one designated person will assist a potential business-person with navigating the permit and regulatory system.
• Yolo and Solano counties will also have a person to turn to assist with permitting and regulatory issues.
Agtourism in California
by T.W. Burger