Farmers innovate to attract visitors, tourism revenue


Issue Date: October 9, 2019
By Ching Lee
To boost agritourism, farms such as Lazy G Bar Ranch in Tuolumne County, provide campsites for visitors.

The season may be ripe for pumpkin patches, corn mazes and harvest-themed activities on the farm, but farms engaged in agritourism are opening their doors in other ways to attract visitors and bring more income to their business.

Agritourism operators are increasingly offering lodging, farm-to-table dinners and events, and workshops to diversify what they already do and increase patronage, said Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator at the University of California, Davis.

Using booking websites such as Airbnb and Hipcamp, more farms are getting into the hospitality business by offering their properties as bed-and-breakfast inns, campsites and getaway destinations, she said. Even though some county regulations for such businesses could present "serious hurdles" for small-farm operators, Leff said counties have largely left farms alone—unless neighbors complain.

"A lot of the counties tell me that they're complaint-driven and that they're not going to bother folks," she said. "They know things are going on, they know that people are doing more lodging, more small events and dinners on their farms, but they don't have the staff to comb the countryside and enforce everything."

For this reason, she said, she thinks there is probably more on-farm lodging going on, though what these farms are doing is on a small scale. The challenge comes when farmers want to expand that part of the business, she added.

"As soon as they want to invest or build a building or something, they're up against pretty intense regulatory pressure," Leff said.

Farms may also open their ranches to event dinners, often featuring meals made with products grown on their farms—and those have become "really popular," she said.

Full Belly Farm in Yolo County, for example, hosts monthly "farm dinners" that often sell out, she noted. During summer months, the farm also does a monthly "pizza night" that's a more casual community get-together, she added.

Other farms are getting into agritourism by holding classes and workshops on topics such as cheesemaking, soap-making, beekeeping and backyard chicken-keeping, all of which are "pretty popular," Leff said. These events not only get people out to the farms, she said, but they allow farmers to promote what they do and sell some of their farm products in the process.

Emily Taylor, who operates PT Ranch in Amador County, said when she took over her family's 500-acre farm, she considered the idea of agritourism for six months before she decided she could do it in a way that would be "noninvasive" for her family.

"I wanted to produce food and sell it in a healthy way, and becoming Martha Stewart was not my idea of what I wanted for my next chapter," she said of her initial hesitation on agritourism.

With a diversified operation that includes pastured-raised cattle, chicken, lamb and bees, and plans to add 50 to 60 acres of olive trees, Taylor said agritourism is "an easy cash infusion" so she could build her farming enterprise without taking out a loan or using her own assets.

So far, she's "experimented" with corporate retreats that accommodate 20 or fewer people, preparing all the events' meals herself with ingredients from the farm. She's also done farm-to-table dinners, but she said those are more for building awareness about regenerative agriculture than about profit, because of how labor-intensive they are.

"A lot of people are doing them, but you really have to be in a community like Napa or Sonoma where you could charge $250 a head, which is a lot of money," Taylor said.

Though she's gotten a lot of requests for weddings, she said "we've been very slow to go into that," opting instead to host wedding party rehearsal dinners for 30 or fewer people. She advertises on Venue Report for weddings and on Peerspace, where people have booked her ranch for photo shoots. She said she's also considering listing on Tentrr, another site that connects campers with private landowners. In addition, the farm holds workshops featuring speakers from around the country, with classes on topics such as dyeing, yoga and butchering.

"Our desire is to build the organic business and have a sustainable farm; agritourism is definitely secondary," she stressed.

As a retired educator, Tina Ballantyne, who runs Giving Tree Family Farm in San Luis Obispo County, said venturing into agritourism was "an easy transition" because she's able to incorporate teaching on her farm, which raises goats, alpaca and an assortment of fowl, and where she holds workshops on cheesemaking and soap-making with goat milk.

"It's been successful to the point where it's paying our feed bills and our vet bills, which is awesome," she said.

She's now starting to give farm tours, she said, and her son-in-law is also putting up a teepee on the property, with the hope that it will be ready for visitors by next spring, at which time she will list her farm on Hipcamp.

"What we hope to do is people who are interested in this kind of lifestyle can come and sleep in the teepee and sign up for classes," Ballantyne said.

Because of her "passion" for gourd art, Cecile Garrison of Garrison Gourd Farm in Tulare County said she's been providing her farm and its facilities to people in the community free of charge for years, so they could learn how to turn gourds into art. In the last couple of years, however, she's wanted to turn this educational service into a money-making operation, she said. Though most of her 20 acres are devoted to commercial production of walnuts and plums, her agritourism is centered on her 1 acre of gourds, which typically yields about a thousand gourds.

Where she plans to make her money is by renting out her guest house as a bed-and-breakfast. That property was already being used as lodging for visiting art instructors who come to the farm to teach classes.

Because she's never charged people in the past for using her facilities, she said she's never been regulated by the county, though she added she probably will be once her bed-and-breakfast business takes off.

"Not that I want to do weddings, but just to apply for a permit is $3,500, and it's nonrefundable," Garrison said. "It's very hard for small-business people."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.