Farmers turn to agritourism to stay in business
Special to The Bee
FALLBROOK – A winding road off Interstate 15 leads to rolling hills and a sudden sea of signs peddling fresh strawberries and tomatoes. Farmers’ markets spring from the roadside, signaling a rustic slice of Southern California life that is gaining commercial appeal.
In Fallbrook, about 50 miles north of San Diego, Andrea Peterson began farming her nearly 15 acres, which border Camp Pendleton, by planting mango trees shortly after moving here in 1979. Eventually, she sold at farmers markets and wholesale to restaurants and stores, adding baby lettuce, squash, raspberries, strawberries, sugar snap peas and tomatoes to her fields. By 2006, she needed to further diversify her business to help pay the bills. So, she decided to convert her home into a year-round bed and breakfast.
“It was a big, empty house with a mortgage,” said Peterson, owner of the Blue Heron Farm Bed and Breakfast. “It just helps. Anything helps.”
A growing number of farms in Southern California have looked to tourism in recent years to boost income.
“Farmers are strapped nowadays,” said Bob McFarland, president of the California State Grange, a farmers advocacy group in Sacramento that promotes agritourism. “They have to develop new sources of revenue.”
Agritourism involves farmers who turn to tourism to keep their farms thriving, and can range from pumpkin patches and picking your own strawberries to bed and breakfasts and wineries.
“It’s the new dude ranch – it’s where people want to come and experience a day or a weekend on the farm,” McFarland said. “It’s a great alternative to going into the city or going to a movie. It’s a different experience.”
California had 685 farms with tourism or recreational income in 2007, generating $34.9 million in revenue, up from 499 farms bringing in $6.6 million in 2002, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture census. Agritourism income nationwide rose during the same period. Several Southern California counties, including Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego, saw an increase in the number of farms offering tourism, the census found.
Some worry that turning farms into tourist attractions takes away from the rural character of the family farm. Though agritourism is relatively new in San Diego County, there are basic questions asked to measure how a proposal will change land use, said Rich Grunow, land use chief for the San Diego County Department of Planning and Land Use.
“Will there be adequate parking? Will they introduce noise to the neighborhood?” Grunow asked, adding that the county soon will consider writing regulations.
Broadening their farming business came of necessity for the Tanaka family of Orange County.
George Tanaka was a farmer who opened a roadside fruit stand in Huntington Beach after World War II. His son, Glenn, continued the business in the 1970s.
But by 1998, the family was not making enough money selling its wares.
Now, grandson Kenny manages Tanaka Farms, about 30 acres of strawberry fields in Irvine that draw thousands of visitors every year through tours, the chance to pick fresh fruit and vegetables, and cookouts.
“Without the tours, it’s pretty slow,” Kenny Tanaka said. “We’re kind of lucky to still be here.”
Beyond a sampling of strawberries or spinach, patrons often seek an education.
The agritourism movement also springs from Americans’ increasing curiosity about the origin of food, how it is made and the people of a seemingly bygone era, said Penny Leff, statewide agritourism coordinator for the UC Small Farm Program in Davis.
“People are fascinated by meeting the farmers and the person directly connected to growing their food,” Leff said. “And people want their children to know, too. Now, most people don’t know farmers and ranchers.”
UC’s Small Farm Program lists between 700 and 800 farms on its online directory, Leff said. Most are small to midsize farms seeking to diversify, she said.
Peterson knows that the bed and breakfast also helps showcase her farm’s fresh fruits and vegetables.
“There’s a much bigger interest in locally, organically grown produce,” she said. “People are much more aware of what they’re eating now.”