As a Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems student at UC Davis, I love having the opportunity to visit farms and ranches that are putting what I am learning in my classes into real practice. Pacific Star Gardens exceeded my expectations. Located near Woodland, CA Pacific Star Gardens is a diversified farm that offers a variety of fruits and vegetables for u-pick and also offers egg subscriptions for on-farm pick up by subscribers.
We were greeted by Robert Ramming at Pacific Star Gardens. He was more than happy to give a tour of the cultivated land. We toured the greenhouses where transplants are grown not only for Pacific Star Gardens but also for other farms and seed companies. Ramming also showed us a piece of land where he was growing Triticale and Rye as chicken scratch and feed. He explained how this is a financially better method than continuing to solely buy feed. Although he still purchases grain from feed stores to compensate for what he has not grown, his goal is to eventually switch to a full self sustaining method. We then passed by the tomatoes and apricots on our way to the berries which Ramming explained were the best crop to grow for a beginning u-pick farm.
Throughout our walk Ramming also shared some of his experiences being a small scale farmer. Pacific Star Gardens used to sell at local farmer's markets. Unfortunately, due to family changes, they had to stop farmers' market sales and subsequently withdrew from their organic certification because the cost was unaffordable without the farmers' market as a source of income. Despite not having organic certification, Pacific Star Gardens still maintains all organic practices to ensure the quality of product and trust of consumers. Pacific Star Gardens direct marketing sales currently include u-pick, some farm stand sales and egg subscriptions. Ramming mentioned that roughly 80 percent of sales are from people living close by and the other 20 percent of sales are from visitors coming in after seeing their Facebook page or through word of mouth.
This visit would have not been complete without a bag of strawberries to take home. Before leaving us, Ramming showed us to the farm stand where we grabbed a clean picking bucket and headed out to the strawberry field. I picked two pounds of yummy strawberries which cost $3.50 a pound. They accept either cash or PayPal/Venmo.
Blackberry u-pick will be coming up soon, so keep your eye out on Pacific Star Garden's Facebook page for more information to visit. https://www.facebook.com/pacificstargardens/
Airbnb experiences are a relatively new program to Airbnb guests. People from around the world are offering tours, classes, shows and more to people wanting to “experience” new things on their travels. In California, hosts are offering horseback riding, cooking lessons, farm tours, and art lessons to name a few. Hosts get their own page on Airbnb and set their calendar to offer experiences. Airbnb handles payment processing, customer service, and up to $1 million insurance. There are a few things like rock climbing and scuba diving that the insurance doesn't cover so make sure you read the fine print.
A host can choose to participate in the traditional Airbnb program hosting overnight guests, trying out the new experiences program, or both on their small farm or ranch. When starting either program, I suggest that you aim for clean, comfy, and simple. Advertise what you can reasonably accommodate and guests can always ask you questions and you can always offer more if the opportunity arises. I find that guests like to be pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed. I have a full time job off the ranch so I offer a clean, comfortable private bedroom and bathroom and have snacks, bottled water, coffee and tea available for guests. I have a collection of hiking maps, restaurant menus, area maps, and local suggestions that guests can look through when they arrive. The space is self-sufficient in case guests arrive when I am at work, so they can immediately make themselves at home.
Over the last couple of years I have raised chickens and quail, raised a steer, cut firewood, and entered into a rangeland restoration project involving cutting down juniper for essential oils. I grow a good sized garden and have canned, dried, and frozen a lot of local produce. Airbnb guests have had the opportunity to ask questions, see new things, and even participate in the regular activities at my homestead. Airbnb guests have helped to bucket feed my 1000 pound steer, weed the garden, and even split firewood just for the experience. When I am able to offer these experiences to guests, I receive really favorably reviews and have often been a “super host” which is a rating based on number of guests and favorable reviews.
One of the reasons my Airbnb has been so successful is that I am one of the only places in my area that allows pets. I have a dog myself and I have found that more and more people traveling these days are looking to travel with their pets. Not only allowing pets but providing dog dishes, pet treats, and dog friendly hikes nearby has also given me an edge. I also try to make accommodations for kids and small families traveling. Although my space is not very large, it is comfortable for a couple traveling with a small child or two. This flexibility targets some of the fastest growing traveling populations. I encourage you to find your hosting niche - do you offer an amazing view, can guests pick fresh fruits and veggies from your garden, or do you offer a rural escape from the city?
I set my price about the average of room rates in Modoc County, $60 per night. The room was full roughly six months out of the year last year, which was plenty of business for me. If I wanted to work harder I probably could have, but Airbnb generated a net income of about $6000 in 2018. In more populated areas where lodging rates and guest interest is higher, I would predict larger income generation. Make sure to check and see if local lodging taxes apply in your area; Airbnb can help you find this out. In Modoc County there are no additional taxes.
Although Airbnb makes it easy, I still had some adjusting to do in sharing my house with complete strangers. The way my house is set up, there is a private entrance into a mudroom that leads to a private bathroom and bedroom for guests. Even though this is a private area of the house, it is still attached to the main house and the kitchen and living room are shared spaces. For my peace of mind and safety I do not use the automatic booking option on Airbnb. Automatic booking was not an option when I started and I feel more comfortable renting to people who are willing to write a short note or story about who they are and why they are visiting. I have denied requests for staying if someone writes a one word message or uses poor language. Using this system, I have had very few guests over the past four years that I would not invite back and I have never had a situation where I felt unsafe.
One of the things I get asked about really often is liability insurance and policy coverage through Airbnb. Although I have never had to file a claim (and hope I never have to) Airbnb has a pretty robust insurance policy of a million dollars for hosts. I choose to add extra insurance costing $12/month on my home owners' policy and feel comfortable with the coverage. There is also a million dollar policy on Airbnb experiences that covers almost everything you might want to do with guests. Even if you never thought of taking people into your home, Airbnb experiences might be a great way to offer tours of your property, take people on a favorite hike or teach them a new trade or craft.
Airbnb has provided many benefits for my homestead over the past four years from making new friends, educating the public and generating income. If you have ever thought about becoming a host for overnight guests or the new experiences program, I suggest you give it a try. Finding your hosting niche and telling your story will help you get more guests while also bringing interest to your property and community.
Tony Azevedo's father moved the family from Watsonville, where he operated a small dairy, to Stevenson in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley in 1958. Azevedo rented 15 acres of land that had become alkaline through irrigation with no drainage for many years. He put in drainage, worked the land and put it into pasture. Starting with this land and adding 10 or 15 acres at a time, Azevedo developed the 400 acre Double T Ranch as the first organic dairy in the San Joaquin Valley.
Tony Azevedo, with his wife Carol and other family members, kept the organic dairy operating for many years until consolidation and competition in the industry forced them to get out of the dairy business. Fortunately, Tony and Carol had also been growing another passion on the Double T Ranch: The Double T Agriculture Museum and the History Train.
The Double T Agricultural Museum was built as a tribute to all the farm families of the past who have fed Americans. The exhibits reflect the life and times of family farmers and industry from the 1800s to the 1950s. From lovingly restored horse-drawn vehicles and carriages to a full-size restored steam locomotive, the collection is host to many vintage treasures. School-children enjoy visiting the old west town and learning the story of how trains transported California crops throughout the country and brought new life to small towns. Brides can enjoy a ride in an elegant historic horse-drawn carriage before their wedding ceremony at the Double T Ranch venue.
This year, with daughter Arlean Azevedo joining the team, The Double T is inviting the public to enjoy a train journey like no other. Here is how Arlean describes the latest adventure:
"Climb aboard our Historical Dinner Train for an evening of fine dining and a chance to see how the steam locomotive changed agricultural history in the San Joaquin Valley. Your evening will begin with a cocktail hour and a tour of one of California's premier Agricultural Museums. At the sound of the train whistle we'll begin boarding for the two hour virtual reality experience that includes a fifteen minute documentary while enjoying appetizers, followed by dinner. The History Train will leave you with a deep appreciation of what travel was like 100 years ago. Your evening will conclude with dessert and a walk through the “Baggage Car” filled with rail history memorabilia, antiques and collectibles."
Although the next History Train Dinner Tour on May 17, 2019 is sold out, seats are still available for the Saturday June 1, 2019 voyage. Prices are $70 per person and include all beverages, dinner and dessert. Advance reservations and payment are required.
Nevada County Grown board member Sammie Bass is coordinating the event. Today, a few days before the big weekend, she shared a little bit about the process and challenges of organizing something never done before in Nevada County.
Organizing participating farms and ranches: Sammie started planning the July event in April and May, so, understandably, communication with potential participating farmers was a major challenge. It was difficult to get clear answers from farmers about what tours, product sales and activities each would be offering to visitors, and to make sure that each participating farm was appropriately safe and prepared. Sammie visited each of the farms and worked with the owners to plan parking and safe access. Would room for ten cars be enough? Is the turn into the driveway from a busy road safe enough? She had no way to know.
Permits needed? Nevada County recently adopted new zoning ordinances that clarified that agritourism activities including tours, farm dinners and U-Pick are allowed by right on agricultural zoned lots over five acres. To make sure that all interested farms and ranches qualified under this zoning, Sammie shared her list of fifteen potential participants with the county agricultural commissioner. The Commissioner rejected several on the list as being less than five acres or zoned rural residential rather than agricultural, so not eligible to host visitors on their land without an expensive conditional use permit. However, as a work-around, these few farms are allowed to have farm stands and to sell their products during the event, but not host tours or other activities.
Day-of ticket sales? The Passport Weekend ticket (actually a wristband) is priced at $20 for advance sales and $25 on the day of the event. It was tough to organize enough volunteers to staff check-in and ticket sales tables at each of the twelve participating venues. Therefore, four visitor check-in hubs will be set up at four of the venues. If visitors show up at the other locations without wristbands, the participating farmers and ranchers will include them in tours and activities and instruct them to check in and pay at one of the four check-in hubs for their next stop.
Food? Lunch stop? Since this is the first-ever Nevada County Farm Trail Weekend, and since most of the farms and ranches are not set up to cater food for guests, Sammie investigated inviting a food truck to feed the guests. However, she could not promise more than 150 - 200 visitors total, which is not enough to pay for a food truck's time, labor and travel costs. Instead, the Nevada county Food Bank, one of the stops on the trail, will put on a barbecue, offering lunch for a donation (on Saturday at least) and giving tours of the Food Bank Garden. Farm Trail visitors may want to bring along a picnic this time.
Promotion: Good Day Sacramento came out and took videos, as did CBS13, helping to promote the event. In addition, local newspaper, The Union, interviewed organizers and wrote an article showcasing participating farms and ranches to local readers.
Sponsors? Maybe next year.
Sammie Bass and other Nevada County Grown organizers are expecting about 150 to 200 visitors for the first annual Nevada County Farm Trail Weekend. This will definitely be an adventure. If you see Sammie on the trail, be sure to say hello and thank her for her hard work. Learn more: nevadacountygrown.org/
California agritourism operators report regularly that navigating the permitting and regulatory process is a major challenge for farmers trying to invite the public onto their land for festivals, tours, dinners, classes, lodging or other activities. Some help is now available, at no cost, in some places.
Five Northern California counties offer non-enforcement person-to-person consultation to farmers and ranchers exploring the regulations and permitting requirements for agritourism, food processing or other farm-related activities. If your farm or ranch is located in Marin, Sonoma, San Mateo, Yolo or Solano Counties, you can call your Agricultural Ombudsman or Farmbudsman to discuss your ideas and plans.
County Agricultural Ombudsmen help farmers and ranchers understand what rules and regulations will apply to an individual diversification idea or plan, and will help them to navigate the various permits and departmental approvals that might be required. The ombudsman will make the process approachable and accessible, and will explore options and alternatives with the person planning an expansion or a new activity on his or her farm or ranch, including giving the farmer or rancher a sense of where "red flags" might be in the process. Importantly, these services are confidential. Marin County Agricultural Ombudsman Vince Trotter explained the job this way, "We try to bring the conversation to "How can we make this work?" We don't expedite the process ourselves, but we do try to bring the rancher together with the regulator."
Examples of Agricultural Ombudsmen's help include:
- Helping a rancher understand the state registration process required for a new pond.
- Helping a poultry farmer understand the state, federal and local regulations they needed to confirm to for on-farm commercial slaughtering.
- Helping a pumpkin patch operator know when a permit is required for a farm dinner.
- Explaining the size limits for starting a small winery under an administrative permit.
- Helping a brewery and winery design their expansion to avoid buffer issues
- Researching an existing use permit to clarify that a vineyard operator with short-term lodging was allowed to hold one-day open house events without an additional health department food permit.
In addition to their consultation work with individual farmers and ranchers, most of the agricultural ombudsmen organize useful information online - guides, factsheets and links to common permit applications. See the end of this story for contact information and websites links.
Contact your local Agricultural Ombudsman:
Vince Trotter, Agricultural Ombudsman
Sarah Hawkins, Farmbudsman
Stephanie Cormier, Farmbudsman