Farmers might boost their income from visitors who pay for the privilege of picking blueberries.
They might sell their produce at roadside stands, host overnight guests, put on harvest festivals or find other ways of tapping into agritourism.
About 30 people discussed the potential and pitfalls of these ventures at a class held Thursday at the University of California Cooperative Extension near Modesto.
“You guys have a chance to teach and build support for agriculture,” said Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator at the UC Small Farm Program in Davis. “… You have stories about your life and your work.”
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The reservation-only class was the first of three. Sessions in January and February will go into detail on permits, budgeting, marketing and other topics. The classes are sponsored by UC along with Stanislaus Grown, the Valley Land Alliance, Ag Link and other partners.
California had about $117.5 billion in tourism spending of all kinds last year, according to research firm Dean Runyan Associates. Only $1.4 billion of that was in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
But the region does have some of the most productive and diverse farming in the world, and visitors might like to learn about it. About 10 million people live within 100 miles. Many people from elsewhere cross the Valley on their way to Yosemite National Park and other major attractions.
Leff said farmers must ensure that they have money to invest in agritourism; a sense of their prospective customers; and knowledge of rules on traffic, noise, food safety, labor and more. She also advised them to talk with their neighbors about what they are doing. This could head off complaints like those that led to limits on rural weddings in Stanislaus County.
It helps if you can show visitors something notable, Leff said, such as a well-worn barn or an old Japanese method of drying persimmons.
John Bos talked about the tulips he grows at Dutch Hollow Farms, at Oakdale and Claribel roads in northeast Modesto. About 200,000 of them bloom early each year in nearly 100 varieties and are sold as cut flowers or potted plants.
“People want the instant gratification of those flowers,” said Bos, who switches to pumpkins and then to Christmas trees later in the year.
Bos, who is part of a dairy family, said farmers can offer “Did you know?” nuggets that intrigue visitors.
“They don’t know that a cow’s temperature is 101.5 degrees,” he said. “Just those simple little things – people love it.”
Merced County promotes agritourism with audio tours of Highways 140 and 165, said Maxwell Norton, farm adviser emeritus with the extension. Travelers can learn how to identify crops and hear some of the history of the area. They also can get guides to blooming almond, peach and apricot orchards.
Livingston-area farmer Cindy Lashbrook spoke about her Pick and Gather at Riverdance Farms, held the weekend after Memorial Day each year.
About 1,200 people turn out to harvest organic blueberries, strawberries and cherries and enjoy music, crafts, food and more. They can learn how cover crops protect the soil between rows, how bats provide guano for fertilizer, and how ladybugs eat aphids that can damage fruit.
“We’ve got that farm-nature interface,” Lashbrook said. “You can farm with nature. You can be a good steward.”
The 74-acre farm has 1.5 miles of Merced River frontage, which allows for nature lessons, fly fishing, kayaking, camping and other activities during the festival.
The site has shade and misters to relieve people from the heat, along with portable toilets and things that serve other needs. But Lashbrook said visitors also have to accept the realities of a Valley farm on a summer day.
“We do what we can to fill in the squirrel holes,” she said. “We have water trucks to keep the dust down.”
John Holland: 209-578-2385
▪ Be sure you have the time and energy to host visitors along with doing regular farm tasks
▪ Assess how much money you can invest and how much risk you are willing to take
▪ Be aware of rules on noise, traffic, septic systems, food safety, labor and other areas
▪ Learn about the typical ages, incomes, family sizes and other details of your target audience
▪ Find out what else they might be doing in the area during their visit
▪ Go see farms that are hosting visitors, and try to cross-promote with those that mesh with your idea
Source: UC Small Farm Program
California agritourism: www.calagtour.org
Stanislaus County: www.stanislausgrown.org
Merced County: www.country-ventures.org
Tuolumne County: www.farmsoftuolumnecounty.org
Central Valley Tourism Association: www.visitcentralvalley.com
UC Small Farm Program: www.sfp.ucdavis.edu