Nov./Dec. 2007 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
Join a growing number of agritourists heading on some of California's roads less traveled to places like Perris (Riverside County), Samoa (Humboldt County) or Aberdeen (Inyo County).
Rural California benefits from a new crop of tourists
Oh sure, you could jet off to an exotic locale such as Paris, Samoa or Aberdeen for your next getaway. Then again, you could join a growing number of people heading on some of California's roads less traveled--that lead you to places like Perris (Riverside County), Samoa (Humboldt County) or Aberdeen (Inyo County).
Tourism has long been a staple of the California economy, generating nearly $94 billion last year. While the state's wineries have for years enchanted visitors far and wide, an increasing number of families are seeking the scenery, serenity and scrumptious food found on farms and ranches throughout the Golden State.
This entertainment form even has a name--agritourism--and the opportunities within it are bigger and broader than one might think.
"Small farm operators are getting into this as a way to increase revenues," said Kristin Reynolds with the University of California's Small Farm Center. "Rising costs make it increasingly difficult for small-scale operators to make it solely through product sales. Agritourism is one way for them to diversify, as well as to educate their visitors, who often are not involved in farming."
The Small Farm Center's agritourism database (www.calagtour.org) started in 2001 with just 70 farms and ranches--a number that has since ballooned to about 700.
What's in it for today's traveler? Plenty.
Agritourism is a perfect fit for the fresh and local movement throughout the country, as more people seek to reconnect with the country and find out firsthand where their food comes from.
"People are looking for a unique experience they can share with their friends. They're kind of looking for those out-of-the-way places," said Jamie Johansson, a farmer in Butte County who derives half of his income from selling directly to customers. "We live in a highly mobile society. A lot of people have done the more traditional stops in California and are seeking out something new and unique."
"New" and "unique" are definitely terms in the wheelhouse of agritourism. What started out about 10 years ago as a smattering of U-pick orchards, dude ranches and bed-and-breakfast inns has expanded to include hundreds of farms and ranches, with the entertainment ranging from trail rides and cooking lessons to roundups and big-game hunting.
"The sky is the limit, as far as being able to cater to the lifestyles and interests of urban visitors," said Desmond Jolly, director emeritus of the Small Farm Center and the person who, in 1998, came up with the term "agritourism." "There's a wealth of possibilities and I'm quite excited about it, particularly because of the acceptance of the legitimacy of this as an option for farmers and ranchers."
Jolene and Ben Cover show off some red delicious apples, part of the bounty grown on their Tuolumne County ranch. The family's distinct appearance is symbolic of their Brethren faith.
Jolly said successful examples of this new wave of travel are easily found. There are tours complete with signs and maps, known as farm trails, operating in several counties in the state. Other popular venues include the dozens of farms on Apple Hill in El Dorado County, Fresno County's Blossom and Fruit Trails and, the granddaddy of them all, the wineries, restaurants and other attractions that make up the Napa Valley.
Few appreciate the success of agritourism as much as Johansson, who sacrificed much to start his farm and has been an ardent crusader for this new enterprise.
As a youngster, Johansson worked at dairies in Humboldt County and dreamed of one day having his own farm.
He studied political science at Colorado State University, envisioning life in the city. However, when his parents moved to Butte County, the opportunity to grow food presented itself and he jumped at the chance to make his dream become a reality.
Johansson bought a 20-acre olive orchard. Then, acting as an apprentice to the farmer he leased the orchard to, he earned his keep by doing framing work for a custom home builder.
Today, he and his wife, Nicole, own and operate Lodestar Farms, making award-winning olive oil from fruit that they grow. Visitors not only see the daily workings of their 80-acre farm, but a fabulous spread that even includes a fully restored Rio Grande Railroad caboose.
"I'm having a lot of fun," Johansson said. "Hearing the positive response directly from the customer really validates that you're in the right business. For those who visit who always wanted to live in the country, I can see the dream in their eyes that I had 20 years ago. I feel satisfied that I'm living that dream."
It was in 2004 that Johansson started the Sierra Oro Farm Trail, which includes Lodestar and two dozen other farms, ranches and wineries in Butte County and neighboring areas.
Local civic leaders have wholeheartedly supported his efforts, understanding that tourists play a vital role in their financial health.
"Plain and simple, tourism is economic development," said Chico Chamber of Commerce's Alice Patterson. "Anytime we can bring in outside dollars to the region, the economy is strengthened."
Nearly 200 miles away, in the heart of the gold country, hundreds of tourists flock daily to Cover's Apple Ranch, which, in addition to orchards, features a bakery, fresh-pressed cider, gift shop, petting farm, steam train rides and, of course, heaps of country hospitality.
"The Dutch apple pie is absolutely to die for," said George Broekema, a constant visitor to the Tuolumne County ranch. "I was born and raised in Los Angeles so I'm used to the big city atmosphere. I love this atmosphere. It's like family here--everybody greets you like you're Norm on 'Cheers.' It's a great place to come and hang out. The food and the service are fantastic. It's like leaving your home for somebody else's home to have breakfast."
Family is very much a part of this business. You'll find no fewer than 15 members of the Cover family on hand--four generations of family with a smile and helpful spirit.
"There's nothing more satisfying than seeing a little child with his eyes sparkling from riding the train or sinking his teeth into a good apple," said Ben Cover, in charge of advertising and sales. "This isn't a thrill or a five-second ride. It's something our visitors can enjoy while learning about life. When families spend good quality time together, it cements a bond that I don't think they can get anywhere else."
General manager Jesse Cover estimates that tourists account for 85 percent of the ranch's income.
"If we didn't have agritourism at this business, we'd either close down or change to another function," he said. "We also have a wonderful chance to tell people what we're doing. People's perception of what happens on a farm is often quite different than what usually happens."
Tourist dollars are the lifeblood of the Tuolumne County economy, with the $153 million generated easily making it the No. 1 industry.
"Tourism is where we live and we die," said Ty Wivell, a local rancher, banker and chairman of the county Chamber of Commerce. "The tourist is probably one of the predominant economic factors that sustains Tuolumne County. Hotel rooms, restaurants, gas stations, banks and gift shops that dot the area all benefit from tourism."
A hundred miles away, in the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley, Sam Minturn cast his future in his form of agritourism back in the 1970s. After a long tenure as an elementary schoolteacher, Minturn decided to pursue something that had provided special memories for him and his new bride, Janet--cutting their own Christmas tree.
Today, they own and operate choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms in Merced and San Joaquin counties. Theirs is among 120 such farms in the state, generating more than $13 million in sales a year.
"It's still fun to see the joy that cutting down a real tree brings to kids and our longtime customers," Minturn said. "One of my personal favorites is a family that bought a tree the first year we opened, which dwarfed the VW Beetle they came in, then watching the family grow in number and finances each year. A few years ago, they came in their new Mercedes to get their tree."
A seasonal rush of customers is also what sustains the Lombardi family in Los Angeles County, who owns and runs a popular produce stand and pumpkin patch in the Santa Clarita Valley.
"This is our way of life," said Joann Lombardi, who with her husband, Bob, is in charge of it all. "This is what we do. This is how we make our living." Each October, 70,000 visitors flock to their ranch for a taste of country living.
Throngs of agritourists are also learning that a journey to the wine country can bring more than a great bottle of pinot or chardonnay.
Kozlowski Farms on Highway 116 in Forestville, Sonoma County, is one of those special stops. Here, you'll find spectacular picnic grounds right next to a bakery and store that features oodles of goodies, including the more than 70 specialty and natural food products they make and market across the United States. California-grown ingredients are often used in their product line, as the family considers it a priority to buy from local sources whenever possible.
"Believe it or not, if we don't like it the customer doesn't get it," said Carmen Kozlowski, matriarch of the family.
"This has been the learning experience of a lifetime," said Cindy Kozlowski-Hayworth, who's in charge of their finances. "There was no manual for this when we started, although my father told me 10 small customers are better than one large customer. We have been very inventive and creative to make a living off of our land."
Visit Kozlowski Farms and you'll be treated to more than sumptuous food made on the premises. Members of the close-knit family are also a familiar sight, including farm founder Carmen Kozlowski, back, and her children, from left, Carol Kozlowski-Every, Perry Kozlowski and Cindy Kozlowski-Hayworth.
Rich and Shelly Collins are preparing their own jump into agritourism. The Solano County couple, California's only growers of Belgian endive, is preparing to open Bridgeway Farms, a 200-acre farm along Interstate 80 between Dixon and Davis in Yolo County where 47 million cars pass by each year.
The ambitious project is scheduled to open next year and will feature a retail farm stand to sell orchard crops, a dairy herd complete with a processing facility for cheese and ice cream, vineyards, a winery and an agricultural education center, among other attractions.
"We hope that we will become a destination for agriculture and food," Rich Collins said. "More and more, it's important for farmers to think out of the box. Our old, comfortable boxes are getting crushed. We'd better get out in time, as there are a great deal of much more interesting boxes to occupy."
This creative thinking should continue to fuel the agritourism evolution, offering creative ways to pique the interest of a growing number of consumers and, at the same time, sustaining a lifestyle as old and precious as California itself--the family farmer.
"The most interaction that people traditionally get involving their food is from the back of a label," Johansson said. "At our farm, we're part of a 100-year history that we can relay to each person that visits. It's nice that farmers are being recognized, that people are beginning to see there's something pretty special here and we've got to preserve it."
California's country adventures
There are hundreds of farms and ranches to visit throughout the Golden State. Here are a few resources to get you started.
Apple Hill Growers Association
Group representing more than 50 ranches in El Dorado County
Beekman and Beekman
Stanislaus County family business features estate-bottled gourmet honey and honey wine, or mead.
Book Family Farm
Located just off Highway 99 near Chico, this family farm has a horse-drawn wagon and carriage, among many other attractions.
Watch handcrafted gourmet cheese being made and tour their gift shop.
California Christmas Tree Association
Links and information to the state's choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms.
Casa de Fruta
Popular roadside attraction off Highway 152 in Pacheco Pass includes a restaurant, deli, children's play area and roadside stand.
Ceago Del Lago Winery
Biodynamic winery near Clear Lake has a tasting room and café and is accessible by boat.
Central Valley Harvest Trails
This link provides a free guide and profile of agritourism destinations in Stanislaus County, where more than 250 commodities and value-added products are grown and shipped.
www.connectingstanislaus.com; click on "Agriculture" 209-522-7278
Chalk Mountain Lodge
9,000-acre cattle and timber ranch in Humboldt County offering lodging and guided deer hunts.
Charles Spinetta Winery
Winery and wildlife art gallery in Amador County, one of the state's emerging wine regions.
This complimentary guide, from the county Farm Bureau, covers farms and farmers markets in Santa Cruz County and the Central Coast area.
Cover's Apple Ranch
Gold country ranch with a bakery, gift shop, petting farm and steam train ride.
Fairs, Farm Shows and Farm Trails
Learn about many other events and destinations through this California Farm Bureau Federation link:
Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard
Santa Barbara County winery, inn and spa owned by Fess Parker, TV's Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.
Fresh off the Vine and The Love Apple Guest Ranch
Ranch in Kings County features organic tomatoes, a guest ranch and camping.
Fresno County Blossom and Fruit Trail
The Fresno County Office of Tourism has a wealth of information on these trails, plus other things to enjoy in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.
www.co.fresno.ca.us; click on "tourism" 559-262-4271
Watsonville ranch includes U-pick fruit, a bake shop, gift shop and picnic grounds.
Makers of award-winning goat cheese in San Mateo County.
Hilmar Cheese Co.
Tours are provided at the expansive visitors' center at America's largest single-site cheese plant, located in Merced County.
Vineyards, winery, fine dining and concert venue in historic Calaveras County.
www.ironstonevineyards.com and www.ironstonefoundation.org 209-728-1251
Family apple ranch with bakery, deli, picnic area and retail store.
This Ventura County farming operation has been around since 1893 and now has an entire tourism wing, including hot air balloon rides, jeep tours and gourmet dining at the ranch.
Award-winning olive oil company and tasting room in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Butte County.
Family farm in Los Angeles County featuring a pumpkin patch and produce stand.
Morningsun Herb Farm
Retail nursery and gardens in Vacaville offers more than 500 varieties of herbs and perennials.
Napa Valley wineries
World-famous destination featuring an awesome combination of food, scenery and wine.
Field trips and visitors are encouraged to make pizzas at this award-winning Madera County farm that grows the raw ingredients.
Rainbow Ridge Llama Ranch
Sonoma County ranch featuring llamas and llama wool.
Rileys at Los Rios Rancho
Take a trip to "where history is made every day." The San Bernardino site offers food and fun that includes hoedowns, U-pick produce, a farm store, weekend barbecues and holiday-themed festivals.
San Mateo County Harvest Guide
This link, from the county Farm Bureau, provides a comprehensive look at nearly 50 farms and farm stands in the area.
Sierra Oro Farm Trail
California's newest farm trail, located in Butte County, includes more than two dozen farms, wineries and places to stay.
Salinas farm with produce, flowers, farm animals and customized tours.
Bison ranch in picturesque Modoc County.
The V6 Ranch
Central California ranch with trail rides and cattle drives.
Tuscan Heights Lavender Gardens
More than 170 lavender varieties grow on 8 acres at this eastern Shasta County farm.
Yolo Land and Cattle Co.
Working cattle ranch in Yolo County offers tours, event facilities and locally grown food, including star thistle honey and beef jerky.
Note: If you're looking for a certified farmers market, visit www.cafarmersmarkets.com.
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.