Farms in SLO County look to agritourism to boost income

At least three times a year, Laguna Beach residents Charlie and Margie Bell vacation in San Luis Obispo County. They don’t lounge on the beach, go wine tasting or “do the touristy stuff,” Margie Bell said.

Instead, the Bells are regulars at a farm-stay at Rinconada Dairy in Santa Margarita. It’s not unusual for them to be up at dawn, working alongside farm owners Christine and Jim Maguire.

Margie Bell, who is a registered dietitian, as well as an avid weaver and spinner, finds the sheep and goat farm a perfect fit for her interests.

“For the same price as a boring, sterile hotel, you can go somewhere with such a wonderful environment,” she said. “And it’s fun to see where your food comes from.”

Like Rinconada Dairy, many county farms are adding agritourism to their slate of offerings. Agritourism, according to the University of California Small Farm Program, is “a commercial enterprise at a working farm, ranch or agricultural plant conducted for the enjoyment of visitors that generates supplemental income for the owner.”

That supplemental income can be attractive to a farmer whose cash flow is subject to the whims of weather and the market.

“Providing a visitor experience is another value-added product they can sell, especially as profit margins are eaten up by increasing costs of crop production,” said Jerusha Greenwood, an associate professor in the Cal Poly recreation, parks and tourism administration department, whose areas of focus include agritourism.

San Luis Obispo County’s economy relies heavily on tourism and agriculture.

Tourism accounted for $1.3 billion in visitor spending in 2012, a 7.3 percent increase over the previous year. In 2013, agricultural crop values totaled nearly $961 million, up 11 percent from 2012.

“When you look at the key economic drivers of SLO County, tourism ranks high, and so does agriculture,” said Stacie Jacob, chief executive officer of Visit San Luis Obispo County, a tourism marketing group. “We’re unique here because the two are linked so closely.”

Authentic connections

A new breed of tourist is driving the growth of agritourism. Today’s vacationers are “increasingly savvy about the authenticity of their tourism experience,” Greenwood said. “They want to eat locally sourced, seasonal food. They want to feel like they are contributing to the economy of their destination, and they want to be able to tell their friends about the ‘local’ experiences they had during their travels.”

In San Luis Obispo County, there are numerous ways for visitors to connect with the region in an authentic way — and food is at the center of many of them.

Jacob said the “foodie” movement has had a strong influence on the growth of tourism in the county. She noted that “culinary” is one of the three pillars on which the county’s tourism brand rests — the other two being “cultural” and “coastal.”

Although the wine industry has been at the forefront of culinary-focused agritourism in our area, Jacob said she is seeing more attractions and activities that “go beyond wine tasting.” These include a broad range of experiences such as U-pick farms, farm tours, farm-to-table dinners and cooking classes.

Farmstands have long been a way for visitors to experience locally grown foods. An early farmstand entrepreneur was Miles Barlogio, who planted pumpkins in the late 1950s on his 700-acre ranch west of Templeton. Not long after, he opened a roadside farmstand with a host of attractions, including life-size horse sculptures.

In 1969, the new state Highway 46 West divided his property in half, creating multiple obstacles for the small family farm. Barlogio sold the southern portion of the farm and closed his farmstand.

In 1994, Barlogio’s grandson Tim and his wife, Joy, opened a farmstand to supplement the income from the family farm.

“Being able to make a living off the land is not the same as it was for our parents, or their parents before them,” Joy Barlogio said. “To stay in business, small farms like ours have no choice but to adapt and diversify.”

Today, Jack Creek Farms sells pesticide-free produce and flowers, as well as honey, cider and home-baked sweets. Guests can also experience a snippet of farm life with dummy steer roping, antique farm equipment, farm animals, a tractor-tire play area and a hay maze.

Most of their patrons were initially local, but now visitors from outside the county, lured by wineries and Hearst Castle, make up the bulk of Jack Creek Farms’ customers.

“Visitors are hungry — literally — for the chance to experience firsthand what it’s like to pick an apple right off the tree and eat it, (and) see what different crops look like growing,” Barlogio said.

She noted that “foodie” travelers have diverse reasons for visiting farms. Some are interested in organic food production methods. Others, especially international travelers, are curious about “what California cider or honey tastes like, and how it compares to their home country’s,” Barlogio said.

Around half of Jack Creek Farms’ visitors are families seeking enriching experiences for their children.

The trend of families seeking agritourism experiences “is only going to increase,” Greenwood said.

Parents value farm activities because they offer children the “opportunity to enjoy the outdoors safely, learn about where their food comes from, touch and smell (and sometimes taste) extremely fresh, healthy and delicious food,” she said.

At Rinconada Dairy, there are two farm-stay options: Guests can stay in a room in the main house and get a home-cooked breakfast, or they can stay in a detached apartment-style rental stocked with food from the farm, such as eggs from their chickens, bacon from their pigs and, of course, handcrafted sheep’s milk cheese.

During the summer months, the apartment is usually occupied by families, mostly from the Los Angeles area. Christine Maguire believes that many people rarely have contact with farms in their everyday lives, yet they “want their families to have a connection to what sustains them.”

Guests, including children, are invited (but not required) to participate in everything from harvesting vegetables from the garden to milking and feeding the farm animals. Already, the calendar for February is booked solid with guests who want to take part in lambing and kidding.

Not every traveler desires to be so hands-on. Some simply yearn for wide-open spaces, scenic vistas and outdoor recreation — and many local farms are eager to deliver.

Picturesque and far removed from the bustle of city life, the Work Family Guest Ranch is a 12,000-acre cattle ranch in San Miguel. It’s owned by Ben Work, the fourth generation of his family to operate the ranch, and his wife, Kelly, daughter of county Supervisor Frank Mecham.

Eighteen years ago, Kelly Work began organizing trail rides as a supplemental source of income. Today, about 300 guests per year, about half of whom are from Los Angeles or the Bay Area, participate in her scenic trail rides and youth horseback riding camps.

The ranch was also the first in California to open a legal farm-stay operation in 2000, Work said. Ben Work’s parents, George and Elaine Work, learned about farm-stays on a trip to New Zealand, where farm-stays are popular and prevalent. Later, the couple was instrumental in the passage of the California Agricultural Homestay Bill in 1999, which, according to the UC Small Farm Program website, allowed farms to “offer bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations without the stringent requirements of operating a commercial restaurant.”

George Work joked that, despite the occasional misunderstanding regarding the name of the ranch, there is no work involved in their farm-stay experience. The guest ranch is about pure recreation and what he calls “immersion into a farm family.”

Kelly Work positions Work Family Guest Ranch as one of the “must-do” forms of recreation in the county.

“We’re doing well because there aren’t a lot of activities in the area, but we’re one of the ones people want to experience,” she said. “People go to Hearst Castle, go zip-lining, go wine tasting, and then they want to go horseback riding.”

A rocky enterprise

Locally, there are mixed results regarding the profitability of agritourism ventures. Kelly Work said that, traditionally, cattle ranching has been the family’s “meat and potatoes,” accounting for 75 percent of its income. However, because of a host of factors, including the drought, the farm has not been profitable for four years.

The farm-stay is not profitable, either, which Work believes is because of high overhead and the ranch’s remote location. However, the trail-riding business is profitable on its own. Work projects that, with the uncertain future of cattle ranching, the family may focus more intensely on its trail-riding business in coming years.

The Maguires are able to operate Rinconada Dairy, in part, because of Jim Maguire’s income as an attorney and public defender for the county of San Luis Obispo. The farm itself has multiple sources of income, including the farm-stay, tour groups and cheese sales.

“Some parts of the business are profitable, some aren’t, but together it does OK,” Christine Maguire said.

Joy Barlogio said Jack Creek Farms as a whole is “just keeping afloat,” but not producing significant income for the family.

“Our entire family works seven days a week to make this project succeed,” she said. “We do see a future in agritourism and look forward to the day that we can actually draw a paycheck, have at least one day a week off and maybe even go on a weekend vacation for the first time in over 15 years.”

See Canyon Fruit Ranch in San Luis Obispo has been a farm and produce stand since 1894. Seventeen years ago, Susie and Paul Kenny began leasing the property.

In addition to producing and selling pesticide-free fruits and honey, the Kennys host Festival Mozaic concerts and garden club meetings. Leading school field trips is a favorite activity for Susie Kenny, a sixth-generation farmer who considers the farm an “outdoor classroom.”

However, the most lucrative part of their business is weddings. The ranch became a wedding venue 16 years ago and has benefited from the recent popularity of vintage, rustic and homespun ceremonies. Now, it hosts more than 12 weddings a year, with couples traveling from as far away as France to say their vows under a canopy of apple trees.

“We had to reinvent ourselves, so we weren’t just depending upon one thing. You can’t make the money you need just by farming anymore,” Kenny said. “We wouldn’t be profitable without all the extras.”

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