It can be depressing these days to drive up Highway 152 from Los Banos, past hills still brown in mid-November and a San Luis Reservoir shrunken by drought.
Then you see it, an oasis by the road: Casa de Fruta, a place that has provided fruit and plenty more since the first trees were planted in 1908. It’s a popular stop for people traveling between the Monterey-Salinas-Gilroy area and the San Joaquin Valley.
The Farm Beat column usually sticks to the Valley, but it’s taking a little trip this week. The occasion is a video that the California Department of Food and Agriculture just released about Casa de Fruta, part of a series celebrating farming around the state. It’s at http://plantingseedsblog.cdfa.ca.gov/wordpress/?p=5157.
Casa de Fruta cannot compare with our Valley for the sheer volume and variety of farm products, but it does show what can be done with agritourism. You can dine at the Casa de Restaurant, sample bottles at the Casa de Wine, indulge yourself at the Casa de Sweets, or ride the little train at the Casa de Amusement. (If you’re traveling with toddlers, as I was several years back, the first stop might be the Casa de Restroom.)
This spot near the Pacheco Pass grows a few of our notable crops, such as cherries and apricots, and is a reminder of the fruit that the nearby Santa Clara Valley once produced in abundance.
This is not to say that our Valley lacks for agritourism. We have produce stands, wine and cheese tastings, harvest festivals and other ways that visitors can enjoy the bounty while dropping some bucks. We even have a few miniature railroads.
But only a little of the potential has been tapped, according to speakers at a tourism summit in Turlock back in May. They cited a report that said the five counties from San Joaquin to Fresno accounted for only 3percent of the state’s $102billion in tourist spending in 2011.
The visitors spend most of their money in places such as San Francisco, Monterey, Disneyland and Yosemite National Park. Our valley might supply them with the walnuts, wine or canned tomatoes they enjoy back home, but they don’t see the region as a place to visit.
The Casa de Fruta website notes how it has “welcomed visitors from around the world” at its convenient location “in the fertile Pacheco Valley between Monterey and Yosemite.”
We need to let these visitors know about the other, much bigger Valley that stretches before them as they descend 152. Yosemite can wait. We’ve got produce stands.