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Down on the Farm

Author: Jean Saylor Doppenberg
July, 2013 Issue

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Agritourism in the North Bay has become as popular as backyard chicken coops.

 
 
Ask 10 people for their definition of “agritourism,” and you’ll get 10 different answers. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “tourism in which tourists stay with local people in rural areas.” Sonoma County Tourism calls it “any income-generating activity conducted on a working farm or ranch for the enjoyment and education of visitors.”
 
In the North Bay, agritourism can mean anything from a pricey harvest time adventure, such as the annual Sonoma County Grape Camp, to an afternoon of motoring or bicycling between small, family-owned farms to pet goats or lambs, buy fresh eggs and pick apples. However you define it, agritourism has become as popular as backyard chicken coops.
 
As a major winegrape-growing region that draws millions of visitors every year, the North Bay is likely the granddaddy of all agritourism in California. The vineyards and tasting rooms may be what first attract the tourists, but some inevitably want to move beyond wine and discover what working the land is really like. They want to introduce their city-raised children to farm animals and freshly picked vegetables, to see where their food is coming from and how it’s grown or made. After going to farmers markets for years, they want to go several steps further––to the actual farms.
 
“Scraping up manure goes along with raising animals on a farm, but it’s not something that kids who visit us look forward to doing,” says Christine Cole, owner of Full House Farm near Sebastopol, which offers tours and “farm stay” lodgings. “So we try to give them more entertaining tasks, such as carrying food to the horses and goats, and they love it.” Along with her husband, David Ramsey, Cole raises horses, goats, sheep and chickens, and maintains vegetable gardens, too.
 

Farm stays: the full experience

Sonoma County, by virtue of its size, diversity of crops and the proliferation of small farms, sees the most activity from agritourism of the North Bay counties, even without wine-centric and vineyard events. To market its member farms, the 40-year-old Sonoma County Farm Trails organization publishes an annual guide with details about farms and food producers. Though its signature Weekends Along the Farm Trails event went on hiatus in 2013, Carmen Snyder, executive director of Farm Trails, says her group “will focus on publishing the 2014 map and guide in the fall and recalibrating. If we’re able to survive as an organization, we’ll aim for a spring farm tour––Blossoms, Bees & Barnyard Babies.” Visitors at any time of year may contact the farms directly about dropping in to buy freshly harvested honey or an olive sapling, cut bouquets of lavender or purchase heirloom vegetable seeds.
 
In some cases, tourists seek the full farm experience––the sights, smells and sounds of being out in the country on a real working farm overnight or for several days. Full House Farm accommodates their wishes. Cole, who’s owned the 23-acre farm on Sexton Road since 1989, added lodgings in 1999. Farm stay guests can choose between a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a full kitchen and a small cottage with a spacious deck suitable for individuals and couples. Both units have spa tubs and wooded privacy under large oak trees.
 
“The people renting our units can range from an individual who dreams of becoming a farmer and wants to experience it a little bit first to families with young children,” says Cole. “Our guests probably wouldn’t be comfortable in a luxury hotel. In a luxury hotel, they wouldn’t have fresh goat’s milk and couldn’t walk into a hen house, gather the still-warm eggs and prepare them for breakfast.”
 
Cole says most of her guests, who number in the thousands after nearly 15 years, have come from San Francisco, Sacramento and Southern California. She’s also hosted couples and families from as far away as Japan, China, Hong Kong, Australia, France and India. In late April, she welcomed a group of visitors from Switzerland.
 
Full House Farm is so popular as a farm-stay destination that, by late March, the rental units were already booked through Thanksgiving, “and some bookings are about a year in advance,” says Cole. Guests in the rentals are treated to her farm tour at no extra charge; day-trippers who call ahead for a regularly scheduled tour pay $20 per adult and $10 for children under 12.
 
As much as she would like to, Cole doesn’t accept walk-ins for spontaneous tours. “We can’t just drop everything to show people around,” she adds. “But I also hate to say ‘no.’ So I politely explain that they must call first to make an appointment.”
 
To promote the farm and its lodgings, Cole keeps up an active presence on social media, continually sharing photos and updates on the farm’s Facebook page. “And when someone has a good experience at our farm, it goes up on the Internet very quickly,” she says. “They post pictures and the news spreads with almost a wildfire feeling to it.”
 

Beyond the vineyards in Napa

Much of Napa County has been an agricultural preserve since 1968 and, since that time, the winegrape has dominated the landscape. Yet there are still a few tenacious farmers growing vegetables on small plots of land and even some raising cattle. At Stewart Ranch on Golden Gate Drive in southwest Napa, buses loaded with tourists who’ve cruised past one too many vineyard occasionally stop along the road so the passengers may gawk at the Belted Galloway cattle grazing in the pastures. The mostly black animals are nicknamed “Oreo cows” because of their distinctive white, belt-like stripe. The ranch owners don’t discourage the lookie-loos.
 
Up the road from Stewart Ranch is BOCA Farm, an acronym for Building Our Community through Agriculture. The farm’s seven acres of vegetables are grown primarily for area restaurants, explains farm director Lizzie Moore, and visitors must call ahead for directions.
 
“We don’t have a program for agritourism right now, but I’m very interested in making that happen,” she says. Though not yet a tourist destination, the farm draws many inquisitive local residents. “I get five to 10 calls per month from people wanting to look around, and they’re mostly families and young people interested in farming,” adds Moore. Last summer, BOCA began operating a seasonal community supported agriculture (CSA) program, so subscribers visit the farm each week when they pick up their boxes of fresh produce.
 
Building on her popular cooking classes that begin with guided shopping tours through the downtown Napa and St. Helena farmers markets, Julie Logue-Riordan of Cooking with Julie periodically arranges additional forays into some of Napa Valley’s exclusive produce gardens and olive orchards not generally open to outsiders.
 
“Most of my students come from more than 150 miles away, and many aren’t from California, so they’re really interested in learning about farm-fresh food and how to shop at a farmers market,” she says. “They want to know how to cook vegetables they’ve only read about that can’t be found in a typical grocery store, such as baby artichokes and zucchini blossoms.” Logue-Riordan, a certified culinary professional (CCP), tours her students through the markets to meet the farmers and select the produce to be used in her classes. “They have a lot of ‘a-ha!’ moments,” she adds with a chuckle.
 
The few ag-themed tours offered by Napa Valley wineries are usually of the high-end variety, tied closely to a wine-and-food experience and aimed at visitors with deep pockets. For instance, Long Meadow Ranch Winery and Farmstead restaurant offers a three-hour adventure that begins at its wine tasting room on Highway 29 south of St. Helena and continues on its 650-acre ranch in the hills near Rutherford. In addition to winegrapes, the ranch produces olive oil, grass-fed beef, eggs and heirloom fruits and vegetables. The tour ends back at the tasting room, followed by a gourmet lunch or dinner paired with its wines.
 
Moore says Napa Valley “will never look like the central coast” with its agricultural diversity and acres of artichokes and strawberry fields mixed in with vineyards. “But in the foreseeable future, it’s easy to imagine many more four- and five-acre farms forming in Napa County and doing great business with restaurant partnerships and CSAs. And then maybe we’ll get on the tourism radar.”
 

Enhancing farm revenue streams

“Agritourism has been a buzzword in Marin County for many years,” says Mark Essman, president/CEO of the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our organization isn’t in the touring business, but we recently put together a farm tour for our members, especially for the hotels. That’s so when their guests ask about things to do in Marin related to agriculture, the concierge can recommend farms to visit or a cheese tour. We want our hotels to have that information and first-hand experience to share with their guests and visitors coming to Marin County.”
 
Gina Marr, the bureau’s liaison for its west Marin members, says farmers who offer tours usually want to first educate people about the land. “Revenue is important to them, yes, but there’s also a really strong desire to get the word out about food production. They’re farmers, not event planners, and most of them just can’t have 50 visitors walking around on their property every day, so they cater tours based on their schedules and the demand. Yet many farms are looking at other revenue streams and how they can enhance their operations to include visitors, so agritourism is a viable option.”
 
One way is by aligning with Marin Organic, founded in 2001 to help promote Marin County’s now 20,000 acres of organically grown produce and animals. It organizes tours at places not typically open to the public, such as Paradise Valley Produce and Gospel Flat Farm. Even England’s royal family got into the spirit of being agritourists when Charles, the Prince of Wales, and his wife, Camilla, visited the county’s organic farms in 2005 (See “Keeping It Real,” July 2006).
 
Many of Marin County’s family farms were protected in perpetuity with the creation in 1980 of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), a coalition of ranchers and environmentalists that came together to permanently preserve Marin farmland. Twenty years later, a desire to keep their farm’s legacy alive and create a new product identified with their dairy, a MALT-protected ranch, led the Giacomini family into cheese production. The Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company was born, and their first product was Original Blue.
 
“As we conducted our research to write the business plan, we quickly realized there was an artisan cheese movement going on across the United States,” says Jill Giacomini Basch, who grew up on the 700-acre West Marin farm with her three sisters and now oversees the cheese company’s marketing. “The timing was perfect for us to diversify and start making a farmstead cheese right on the dairy.” In 2010, the family opened a culinary and educational center, known as The Fork, where visitors can taste cheese after an hour-long walking tour of the ranch.
 
“Guests learn how and why we operate a closed-herd, about the life cycle of our dairy cows and they can meet and pet the calves in the nursery,” she says. “They learn about our commitment to land stewardship and sustainable practices and they learn how the flavors of our grass and milk translate to the flavor attributes of our cheese.” Basch and her sisters, all principals in the company, also offer monthly farm dinners at The Fork, together with home cheesemaking classes, hands-on and demonstration-style culinary classes and educational seminars led by chefs, local oyster farmers and craft beer brewers, among others. Tours and tastings at the farm and The Fork are by reservation only.
 
“Our focus is to deliver educational experiences, and we want visitors to leave here reinvigorated and more knowledgeable about their food sources, and to appreciate that supporting local agriculture supports their local economy,” says Basch.
 

Cheese tourism hitting its stride

A fast-rising attraction in the Bay Area is cheese tourism, according to Seana Doughty, owner and cheesemaker at Bleating Heart Cheese of Tomales and president of the California Artisan Cheese Guild. “As consumer awareness and demand for more unique cheeses continues to grow, the desire to visit the cheesemakers has also grown,” she says. “And we truly have become a world-class cheese-producing region.”
 
To promote this booming agritourism niche, the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail map was first introduced two years ago with a print run of 50,000 copies. “We’ve already done three printings of 50,000 each, and we’ll likely print 50,000 more copies later this summer, because they really fly out the doors of visitors centers,” says Vivien Straus, a member of the Straus Family Creamery family of Tomales who’s also active in the Artisan Cheese Guild.
 
Boosting cheese tourism even further, says Straus, was the May release of the official Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail mobile app, which provides continually updated details about 49 cheesemakers in California, primarily in the Bay Area.
 
Straus believes artisan cheese is one of the ways the local dairy industry can be re-energized and survive. “Most of these cheesemakers aren’t from dairy families. They’re new people coming from other occupations who have a dream and are finding a new way to make a living off the land.”
 
Doughty says cheesemakers are “a friendly bunch who take great pride in what we do and would like to share that with visitors. But many of us aren’t able to welcome tourists due to regulatory and zoning restrictions.” The cost to satisfy these requirements is prohibitive for most small artisan cheesemakers, she explains, as they don’t have the resources to build handicap-accessible bathrooms and wheelchair ramps, add fire sprinklers and parking spaces, pay use permit fees and so on.
 
“Many of us, my company included, would very much like to sell a few wheels of cheese directly to visitors on weekends,” adds Doughty. “Unlike in other countries, we’re not allowed to put a sign on the side of the road that says ‘artisan cheese for sale,’ because that requires a permit, too.”
 
While traveling in the Pyrenees mountains near the France-Spain border, the presence of such road signs was how Doughty located many cheesemakers. “You could walk right in, ring a bell and buy a whole wheel of cheese direct from the cheesemaker. We’re not allowed to do that here without obtaining the proper permits and approvals, which costs both time and money.”
 

Not all farmers cut out for it

Full House Farm’s Cole says most of her visitors don’t realize the long hours and dedication it takes to run a farm while maintaining lodgings, too––a part of the agritourism business that’s not without its downside. “We can get the call from guests late at night saying their hot tub isn’t getting hot or they just discovered they don’t have fresh eggs for the morning,” she says. “To operate a farm stay, you have to be willing to give of yourself, and that’s something not all farmers are ready or able to do.”
 
Most farmers she knows are hard working but private people. “I believe offering tours and even lodgings is a viable direction for them to take,” she adds. “But for some, it’s just not in their nature to deal with the public in that way.” 
 
Farmers contemplating the leap into agritourism can turn to the University of California’s Small Farm Program, which offers occasional conferences that delve in-depth into such topics as marketing their operation, satisfying regulations and permitting requirements and liability insurance.
 
The program’s website features a wealth of information for farmers, while consumers cruising for a farm to visit are redirected to the California Agricultural Tourism website. Its slogan aimed at tourists is straightforward: “You’ve seen Disneyland...now visit the other California.”
 
 
Jean Saylor Doppenberg is the author of three books: Food Lovers’ Guide to Napa Valley, Food Lovers’ Guide to Sonoma, and Insiders’ Guide to California’s Wine Country.


 

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