Agritourism poses challenges for SLO County farms

Compared with the challenges of tending a herd or growing a crop, the path to starting an agritourism business has been relatively smooth, according to most of the farmers and ranchers interviewed.

Most report good relationships with their neighbors — even at See Canyon Fruit Ranch, where weddings have the potential to generate noise.

“Years ago, we had a neighbor that complained about music,” farmer Susie Kenny said. “Now, we don’t go into nighttime, and the decibel level can only be so high. We tell people, if they want a rowdy party, this isn’t the place, and we never had another complaint.”

Few of the businesses interviewed had issues with county policies. However, “confusion over (county) zoning ordinances has deterred many farms from pursuing an agritourism venture,” said Jerusha Greenwood, an associate professor in the Cal Poly recreation, parks and tourism administration department, whose areas of focus include agritourism.

By far, the largest obstacle in operating an agritourism venue is the added overhead, including the cost of insurance, permits and increased staffing.

Some farms overcome this by offering attractions during a designated season, as with the many pumpkin patches that crop up each October.

During the past 39 years, Carolyn Davis has tried growing wine grapes and starting a wedding venue at her 110-acre San Marcos Ranch in Paso Robles. Both ventures fell victim to drought and recession. But she found her niche when she opened a pumpkin patch, named My Granny’s Gardens, four years ago. For her, it’s a way to earn a living, as well as an opportunity to bring “love and delight back into agriculture and share that with others.”

Beginning late September and continuing until Halloween, the farm offers three acres of U-pick pumpkins and produce, as well as numerous family-oriented attractions including farm animals, a haunted mine, a corn maze and the opportunity to pan for “gold.”

“The reason we have only opened in October is that we only have three employees — and Granddad and I are two of them,” Davis said, referring to her partner, Dave Poer. “Between repairs, building, planting, irrigating, weeding and bugs, we are stretched pretty thin.”

Davis is taking the slow approach to building an agritourism venue. As the farm gradually expanded its products and attractions, “profits have increased accordingly,” she said.

Davis now has the resources to add more seasonal events. She plans to sell plant starts in the spring and may sell Christmas trees and offer holiday activities next year.

Another cost-saving solution for small farms is to partner with an outside company. This includes hunting outfitters, tour group companies and special event coordinators.

One prime example is Sunset Savor the Central Coast, which held its fifth annual event at Santa Margarita Ranch in late September. The event highlights locally produced foods and wines and includes culinary-themed adventure tours. Co-hosted by Sunset magazine and Visit San Luis Obispo County, it has an overall economic impact of about $4 million and continues to grow, according to Stacie Jacob, chief executive officer of Visit San Luis Obispo County, a tourism marketing group.

A newer company with an agritourism focus is Central Coast Jeep Tour Adventures, which offers expeditions that combine wine and olive oil tasting with backroads tours of vineyards and ranches in the Paso Robles area. Owner Salvatore DeMauro started the company last year after running the local branch of his brother’s business, a Santa Barbara-based jeep tour company, for six years.

Currently, DeMauro works with four private vineyards and two olive growers.

“They like the idea of giving people a fuller experience on a wine tasting tour, but they’re not equipped to do private tours themselves,” he said.

DeMauro has seen business steadily increase because of his marketing efforts, which primarily target guests of local inns and hotels. This type of aggressive marketing has been successful for DeMauro, as well as for Savor, but may be out of reach for local farmers whose profit margins are often stretched thin. Most farms interviewed rely almost exclusively on websites, social media, listings on tourism sites and word-of-mouth.

Additionally, there are few efforts among local farms to market agritourism collaboratively. In 2004, about 60 local farms and ranches formed an agritourism marketing group called the Central Coast Agritourism Council. One of their most successful endeavors was an Ag Adventures Map that was circulated in California visitor centers. After the map was featured on Huell Howser’s popular PBS program, “California’s Gold,” thousands of requests for it poured in.

Since the council’s inception, 13 original members closed their agritourism operations, and the council has “languished,” said Joy Barlogio, who currently heads the group. They were not successful in renewing the grant that paid for the original map. Currently, their only marketing effort is the website, which is maintained by Barlogio.

Though Barlogio hopes to revitalize the council, she believes collective marketing efforts are difficult because “farmers are very independent and so busy trying to make a living, they just don’t have time to sit in on meetings.”

Noreen Martin, who is chief executive officer of Martin Resorts and also a commissioner and chief fiscal officer for Visit California, the state’s tourism marketing organization, believes the future growth of agritourism in San Luis Obispo County lies in a cohesive and organized marketing effort. Central to that is “creating an agritourism identity as a county,” she said. “When that happens, the rest of us, the lodging and wineries, can tap into what they’re doing and all send same message.”

Visit San Luis Obispo County has worked only with a few small farms, but Jacob hopes that will change.

“These are the kinds of activities people are always seeking out,” she said. “The more we know, the more active these farms are in our programs, the better we can advocate and be a marketing arm for them.”

Despite these challenges, Barlogio believes agritourism can flourish in the county and that the benefit will be measured in more than dollars and cents.

Agritourism may be key to the survival of small family farms, she said, and in turn “preserve open space, rural character, and the traditions and heritage that make SLO County the wonderful place we call home.”

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