Jeff Jardine

‘With this use permit, I thee wed?’ Could be boon for ag tourism promotion

Stanislaus County refused to allow then-owner Denise Seymour to use her ranch on Crane Road in Oakdale as a commercial venue for weddings and other events. She ended up losing the property to foreclosure. Taken September 26, 2007. (Debbie Noda/The Modesto Bee)
Stanislaus County refused to allow then-owner Denise Seymour to use her ranch on Crane Road in Oakdale as a commercial venue for weddings and other events. She ended up losing the property to foreclosure. Taken September 26, 2007. (Debbie Noda/The Modesto Bee) Modesto Bee

Stanislaus County officials began touting the need to promote agriculture as a tourist industry over two decades ago.

They’ve held conferences about it, created programs to develop it and brought in experts to talk about it. They’ve showcased farmers who already are doing it, including John Bos of Dutch Hollow Farms and the 200,000 blooming tulips that draw visitors each spring.

They’ve lauded the grandeur of the almond blossoms, the roadside fruit stands, the businesses linked to and relying upon ag, and the potential for selling not only their crops but also harvesting in additional dollars by marketing their working farms and ranches as attractions. Indeed, it does pay for some farmers, including the blueberry growers who open their farms to people who can come pick their own fruit for a price, as well the scores of fruit stands lining Valley roads and highways.

“We need to celebrate where we are and uniquely what we are,” said Keith Boggs, the county’s assistant chief executive officer, who has been the driving force behind the ag tourism concept.

But while he’s been promoting ag tourism, the county’s zoning ordinances in most cases prohibit farmers, ranchers and other ag types from making extra money in one other way: by renting their properties out as commercial wedding and other event venues. It seems like a missed opportunity. In this era of social media, photos from virtually every wedding end up on Facebook or Instagram and would certainly reflect favorably on the farms or ag properties that host them.

As The Modesto Bee’s Ken Carlson reported Wednesday, that is changing because property owners will be able to apply for use permits allowing such events, contingent upon satisfying environmental concerns, including traffic, and that the neighbors don’t squawk too loudly. Already, the rules allow ag businesses to sell their products on site, including in wine tasting rooms and at fruit stands.

Some property owners hosted events in the past by getting special permits from the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office. And for many years, the Bloomingcamp Ranch east of Oakdale hosted weddings, family reunions and other gatherings. It stopped, voluntarily, about the same time the county began questioning the events even though the ranch has a pie kitchen, plenty of parking, restrooms and decent access to Highway 120/108. County officials in 2007 prohibited another ag property owner, this one on the west side of Oakdale, from hosting weddings. The owner ultimately filed for bankruptcy and lost the property to foreclosure.

Those same rules prevented Nancy Lily, owner of Lily of the Valley Alpaca Farm on Church Street east of Modesto, from renting her place out for weddings or other private events even though it is a perfect setting for them.

“I’d thought about it, but (county officials) are really controlling,” she said. “We would like to be able to have small weddings here. It’s such a nice setting.”

Really, what couple wouldn’t love to be photobombed in their wedding pictures by a cute-faced alpaca? Or with a backdrop of almond blossoms in a springtime ceremony?

Easing the process to allow more outdoor wedding venues means locals wouldn’t need to go to places in neighboring San Joaquin or Merced counties, as is now the case, said Mira East, owner of Mira Bridal Couture in Modesto. That, in turn would benefit the local economy.

“With weddings running between $20,000 and $50,000, we (in Stanislaus County) potentially lose that revenue because the bride will now hire a florist, baker, photographer, deejay, hotels, and other services closer to their venue in other counties,” East said.

Conversely, dairies probably won’t host many weddings for the obvious reasons. And there are certain times a year when an orchard wouldn’t be too good, either, such as during the late-summer almond harvest when sweepers create choking dust clouds.

Guest: “Oh, that’s a beautiful beige dress you’re wearing!”

Bride: “It was white a few minutes ago ...”

Still, to some folks, having their wedding in a peach orchard, in a barn, standing in a field green with knee-high grass or alongside a John Deere harvester represents the essence of Valley agriculture that is worth promoting.

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