Post by Brie Mazurek, CUESA (7/11/14)
With harvests and travel season both at their peaks, summer is prime time for agritourism. Farm tours, U-picks, farm stands, festivals, food-crafting classes, bed and breakfasts, and wedding and event hosting are just a few of the ways that farmers are opening their doors and fields to the community.
In the local food economy, where margins are slim but public interest is high, paid farm experiences are helping many farms make ends meet. According to the latest Census of Agriculture numbers, farm income from agritourism has grown 24% from 2007 to 2012, generating about $700 million.
Such activities help small farmers diversify their income stream and build customer loyalty. “We use all avenues that we have available for selling our crop, and U-pick is just one of the ways we do it,” says Larry Glashoff of Glashoff Farms in Solano County. For eaters, visiting a farm provides a deeper connection to where our food comes from, along with a taste of the work that goes into it.
Hands-On Education at The Fork
With a history of more than 50 years of dairy farming, Bob and Dean Giacomini founded Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company in 2000 and started producing artisanal cheese with their four daughters. The family soon found itself inundated with requests from customers who wanted to see their ranch and cheese-making process. “We had to say no to them because we didn’t have a place to facilitate an educational experience,” says daughter Jill Giacomini Basch.
After years of hosting impromptu tastings in their family’s kitchen, they realized the value in creating a more formal venue to showcase their cheeses, so in 2010, they built a commercial kitchen and dining a room, which they named The Fork. Jill refers to it as a “culinary and education center,” where they host tastings, cooking classes, and other public and private events.
“We get people out on the farm, learning about our history and practices, and our commitment to conservation and sustainability,” says Jill. “Then they come inside for some sort of culinary component, from a casual tasting to a cheese-making class.”
Hosting popular farm-to-table dinners each month, the facility also serves as a showcase for the bounty of West Marin and Sonoma counties. “We really believe that The Fork is a place for our company to pay it forward by letting other local purveyors, like farmers and winemakers, present what they do.”
Farm Stays for Sustainability
The Apple Farm in Philo also offers hands-on cooking classes, with the addition of overnight stays in a retreat-like setting. Sally and Don Schmidt, founders of the Yountville institution The French Laundry, acquired the historic orchard in 1984 with a dream of taking their family back the land. The Schmidt’s daughter, Karen, and her husband, Tim Bates, came on board to help convert the farm to organic and biodynamic practices.
However, it quickly became apparent that growing heirloom organic apples was not a lucrative business for a small farm in an increasingly globalized market. “We couldn’t just farm on the property for what we paid for it,” says Karen. “We needed to diversify so that we weren’t at the mercy of crop failure.”
The family built cottages and a commercial kitchen to bring their restaurant clientele out to the property. Sally taught cooking classes until she retired a few years ago. Karen and Tim continue to operate the Apple Farm today, and agritourism allows them “to farm the way we want to farm.”
Weekday stays offer a quiet retreat for guests (“We don’t spend a lot of time with our guests on weekdays because we’re working,” says Karen), while on weekends the Bates offer a more personal and hands-on experience that includes cooking classes.
“It’s not a farm stay where you go out and help on the farm. We don’t have the manpower for that,” says Karen, who is wary of the glossy image that some forms of agritourism can paint for urban visitors. “We don’t want our farm to be a circus. If people want to come here and share what we’ve created here, that’s what we can offer.”
As the Bates think about the future and what their children are willing to take on, they see the B&B as vital to the farm’s long-term economic viability, accounting for about a third of its income, with another third in apple sales and the rest in value-added products, such as jams and chutneys. “We’re trying to build some sustainability into the business,” says Karen.
Family Field Days
For eaters of all ages, even a day trip to a farm can create a lasting impression. Capay Organic in Yolo County welcomes about 7,000 visitors throughout the year at their farm tours and festivals. Events like the annual Capay Tomato Festival are filled with tastings, tractor-pulled tram rides, and other family-friendly activities.
For farmer Thaddeus Barsotti, these community events offer an opportunity to connect with the public, share the farm’s story, and communicate the impact of organic farming. “We see a value in education, says Thaddeus. “The tours are not profitable for us directly, but they contribute to a bigger change in how our generation views farming.”
Farm tours give visitors a first-hand look at the farm’s practices, including crop rotation, ecosystem management, and water conservation. “The goal is to help people understand that when they eat seasonally, they’re enabling this farming system to work,” he says. “They’re also enabling our family of employees to have year-round work, which is an important part of economic sustainability.”
Harvest activities give kids a first-hand look at where their food comes from, while having fun getting their hands dirty. “Kids learn that vegetables aren’t always as beautiful as they look at the market,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter to them, because they picked them themselves.”
At Glashoff Farms, Larry Glashoff has watched many children grow up as their parents bring them back to his farm for berry picking each summer. “It’s a family thing,” he says. “They go home and bake pies or cobblers together. It’s cool to know that people come back each year, and it’s something they want to share with their kids.”
Local Agritourism Opportunities
Ready to plan a farm trip? Here are some upcoming and ongoing opportunities at Ferry Plaza farms:
The Apple Farm (Philo): Guest cottages, stay-and-cook farm weekends, event hosting, and more. Details.
Capay Organic (Capay): Farm tours, dinners, and festivals throughout the year, including the annual Capay Tomato Festival on July 19, with optional overnight camping in the fruit orchard. See a full schedule.
Glashoff Farms (Fairfield): Berry U-pick by appointment only. Blackberry season is at its peak and winding down in the next couple weeks. To find out about the next berry U-pick, email Larry Glashoff (email@example.com) or sign up for the newsletter.
Green Gulch Farm (Muir Beach): Retreat center offering public programs and guest and residential stays. Learn more.
Lonely Mountain Farm (Watsonville): Farm dinner on July 13.
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company (Point Reyes): Weekly farm tours, monthly farm dinners, and cooking classes. See a full schedule.
Thomas Farm (Aptos): Dahlia U-pick and picnic on July 27 and August 24, with farm dinners on the horizon.