Yesterday I was an agritourist. Pamela Marvel and Stuart Littell, owners of Grumpy Goats Farm, in the Capay Valley of Yolo County, invited me to be part of their annual olive harvest, joining the "friends and family" contingent and picking alongside a hired picking crew. Grumpy Goats is a twenty acre organic farm planted with multiple varieties of olives that are pressed into prize-winning extra virgin olive oil. For me, the day was an adventure. I got to enjoy a sunny fall day being part of an ancient rite of the season, and I got to spend a few hours with some people whose paths don't often cross my own.
Being a guest, I didn't arrive until 9:30 or so, after a beautiful drive through the surrounding farm land. Stuart was there to meet me, introduced me to the other friends and family, and offered me coffee and pastries. With my own picking basket strapped on, I started picking. The young trees were soft and kind, giving their fruit easily with a gentle pull. Even the lowest branches almost dragging on the ground bore olives to harvest. The rhythm was easy on the body - no ladders to climb and lots of trays close by to dump olives when the picking basket began to get heavy. The crew of men and women worked fast around me, and I learned by watching. The other family and friends guests and I tried to keep up, and talked as we picked.
After a few hours it was lunch time. Stuart and Pamela put on lunch for the "family and friends", while the crew gathered to eat by their vehicles or in the shade of the trees. We talked and ate and enjoyed the pleasant day, learning more about each others' lives. Then it was time to go back to picking. This time I joined in with the hired crew, trying not to get in their way.
I thought of the election earlier this week. I thought of our new president-elect and the fearful changes that might be coming for this kind woman and her family and her friends. I wondered what harvest day would be like for Stuart and Pamela next year, or the year after. This agritourism adventure connected me briefly to people whose kindness and friendliness I hope to be able to repay before too long.
The people of Suzie's Farm, diversified organic growers in San Diego, have explored many ways to connect their customers to the farm and the good food growing on the farm. They offer regular farm tours, a CSA program, strawberry U-Pick days, farm dinners and other events. About a year ago, farm manager Lauren Gagliano Saline and her staff noticed that some of their customers wanted more chances to get their hands dirty, maybe to harvest their own CSA.
Suzie's staff tried an unguided vegetable U-Pick, letting customers pick vegetables from the fields. That didn't work out so well. Many people didn't know how to walk in the fields without trashing the beds, and didn't know how to harvest the different crops, and the random picking adventures tied up staff time. So Lauren and the team created a guided U-Pick option, and the U-Pick Harvest Club was born.
Now about fifty U-Pick Harvest Club members pick their own CSA every week. They join and prepay for four, eight, sixteen or more "picks". Each "pick" is a varying list of eight items with a set quantity of each item, designed to be approximately equal to a CSA share. Harvest Club members are told the times each week that they can pick their shares, on Tuesday, Saturday or Sunday. The picking times are when farm staff are leading their regular farm tours, so Harvest Club members join any of the tours and are supervised in their picking by the tour leaders. Of course they are not charged for the tour, which usually costs $10 per person.
Another advantage the U-Pick Harvest Club members enjoy is the chance to customize their pick, an option not available to regular CSA members. Rather than picking a set amount of each of the eight items, they are allowed to substitute more of one crop if they prefer. For example, they can pick eight melons one week if melons are one of the listed items, and take none of the other things on the list. And some people, Lauren explained, just prefer to pick that perfect bunch of kale. Harvest Club members are also allowed to bring along up to three people to "help" them pick - which includes the free farm tour.
The first year of Suzie's U-Pick Harvest Club has been a success, seeing steady growth and renewals for the second year. For more information, see Suzie's Farm website.
About four years ago, the Olsons set up a "U-pick/CSA Member Program," and now reserve the u-pick experience for farm CSA members. The price of membership is a case of Gabriel Farm's organic juice. For $36, customers get three gallons of juice and the ability to pick and purchase whatever is in season. Once they had the membership program established, Lucy and Torrey felt comfortable in opening up the U-Pick options to their full range of crops - from apples, pluots, berries, Asian Pears, tomatoes and flowers in August through persimmons and pineapple guavas in November.
Membership in the U-pick CSA program at Gabriel Farm averages about 500 families. A membership is good for a family or for a group of four people. Most customers are families with young children who want their children to learn where their food comes from and to be able to experience the farm. Most drive an hour or two from the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Lucy and Torrey are happy with their program. They have found that most people who make the membership commitment are supportive, kind and respectful of the farm.
Most U-Pick CSA members only come out to the farm once a year, as they are very busy people, Lucy explained, although she encourages all members to experience the apple harvest at least once if they start in a different season. Turnover in the program is about 80 percent, but enough new members join each year to maintain the average membership numbers.
The Olsons are not trying to grow their U-Pick program. They tried a hay pyramid one year for the children to play on, but decided that they didn't want to be in the agri-tainment business and did not repeat the experiment. They plan to continue to use the U-Pick membership program to limit the number of customers and to make more of a connection with people who enjoy and respect Gabriel Farm. For more information, see gabrielfarm.com/portal/u-pick
Nigel and Lorraine of Eatwell Farm in Dixon go an extra mile to share a taste of real farm experiences with their 500 CSA members and their friends and relations, partly for increased understanding about the farm by their customers and partly to build loyalty and attract new CSA members.
After arriving and getting settled, we all walked out to the garlic field, where we learned how to pull up the bulbs with the stem still attached. We got the hang of garlic harvesting quickly, as the soil had already been loosened around the bulbs, making pulling pretty easy. We picked and pulled and shook off the dirt and piled our findings into harvesting trays to bring back to the packing shed.
After we'd filled a dozen or so trays with our harvest, Connie and Eric, our hosts for the afternoon, let us loose in the next field over, the most beautiful abundant strawberry patch, with instructions to taste and pick what we wanted. No prices, no weighing, just picking and eating of the most delicious ripe and sweet berries. Smiles were everywhere.
Then it was time to learn how to braid. First a little instruction in cleaning off the outer layers of skins, then a short demo on how to braid, and we were ready. We all made a few braids, or tried to make braids. Although the farm sells garlic at their farmers' markets, Connie and Eric again let us know that we could take home as much as we wanted! We felt royally gifted with kindness.
Finally, dinner was ready. The main course was farm-raised chicken, prepared by Lorraine. Rounding out the delicious meal were potluck salads, sides and sweets brought by the visitors. Dinner was followed by a campfire, complete with marshmallows and all the makings for classic s'mores.
Brooke Smith, sales manager at the Courtyard by Marriott and Residence Inn in Chico, promises that Explore Butte County, the non-profit organization funded by the TBID, will help with things such as promoting agricultural tourism, Lake Oroville and local cities. Smith explained that Explore Butte County intends to establish a grant program that will assist local partners, including agritourism operations, in their promotions. Board members of Explore Butte County are primarily hotel and motel operators, but the board also includes Nicole Johansson, a marketing professional and organizer of the popular Sierra Oro Farm Trail.
In the TBID process, local lodging operators agree to assess themselves and ask the local government to collect the money and pass the funds onto a designated tourism promotion organization, often times the Visitors and Convention Bureau or a non-profit organization such as Explore Butte County. Many county and cities in California have established TBIDs, including Napa Valley, Sacramento County, Placer County, Monterey County, San Diego, Long Beach and Oceanside. By the end of 2014, there were 85 California TBIDs. Many of these communities, including Butte County, were assisted by Civitas, a consulting firm specializing in TBID formation.
The next step for Explore Butte County is to hire a marketing firm to work with the board on the tourism marketing strategic plan and implementation program. The marketing RFP has just been released, and proposals are due by June 30 from any interested parties. Local Butte County marketing firms are specifically invited to submit proposals. Please send any questions pertaining to the RFP via email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Some call them "Culinary Tourism." Others call them "Farm to Fork." Whatever they're called, dinners on a farm or ranch are increasingly popular with farm fans, and can be profitable for the farmers who host them. We talked with farmers from Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley, Bloomingcamp Ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, and Mother Lode Harvest in the Sierra Nevada foothills to learn a little about their on-farm dinners. Here are their stories and tips for other farmers considering farm dinners:
- Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, western Yolo County, is now in the second year of offering monthly farm dinners to the public from March through October. Second generation farm partners, Jenna and Amon Muller, prepare the meals for their 30 guests each month in the fully permitted kitchen at their new event facility on the 400 acre farm. No additional permits are required, as Yolo County allows farmers to organize up to eight small events of this type each year. No alcohol is served to guests at the Full Belly Farm dinners.
The popular dinners always sell out, often many months ahead of time, with marketing limited to the CSA newsletter, the website and occasional social media. The pricing is two-tiered: CSA members pay $70 per person, and the general public pays $80 per person. Because Jenna and Amon have small children, they are careful to make their dinners family-friendly. Children seven to thirteen years old pay half price, and children younger than seven are free. All registration is done by phone, and the personal attention helps groups who want to eat together be able to register for the same dinner. Here is a blog post from a recent Full Belly Farm dinner guest
Some tips from Full Belly Farm:
- It's nice to have a facility that is weatherproof, and to be able to set up the tables inside when weather is stormy.
- Try to arrange for plenty of shade in hot weather.
- A tour wagon helps when it's time to take people on a farm tour.
- Summer dinners start later due to the heat.
- You may need accessible restroom facilities.
- Set out a few extra seats, so that guests can sit with who they want to, rather than assigning seating
- Don't be afraid to experiment with seasonality - using new potatoes and other fresh young crops.
- Request information about food allergies and special diets so that you can do your best to accommodate guests with menu substitutions.
- One challenge is that sometimes people don't want to drive home after dinner. It would be great to have more lodging options nearby to be able to refer them to.
- Bloomingcamp Ranch in Oakdale, Stanislaus County, is also in their second year of offering regular farm dinners to the public. Last year farm owners Courtney and Matthew Smith put on four dinners; this year they're planning six, starting in May. In Stanislaus County, farmers are allowed to put on up to six events each year, but they are required to register the dates and number of people expected with the county sheriff, and to pay a fee, according to Courtney.
Although Bloomingcamp Ranch has a licensed bakery kitchen on site, the Smiths prefer to contract with a different local chef for each dinner, selecting chefs from within 30 miles of their Oakdale farm. The farmers give the chefs a list of what will be available on their farm and from other local sources. The chefs prepare a menu and a food order from this list, and Bloomingcamp delivers the order to them at no charge a day before the dinner. The chefs prepare the dinners in their own licensed production kitchens and bring the food already prepared to the farm. The farm dinner menus are unique and creative, not options from the chefs' regular restaurant menus. The Smiths generally provide all the ingredients and pay the chefs a per person fee for their time, sometimes trading part of the fee in Bloomingcamp Ranch pies or other baked goods for the chefs to serve in their restaurants.
Courtney also teams up with a local winery or brewery for each dinner. The winery or brewery uses their own tasting permit and pairs wine or beer to pour with each course of the dinner.
To prepare for hosting these 40-guest dinners, Matthew and Courtney built their own tables. They rent chairs, linens, glasses and dishes for each event, and provide a crew of three or four servers as wait staff. Each dinner is scheduled for a Friday night during the summer months when outdoor seating by the pond is pleasant. The dinners start at 5:30 p.m. with hors d'oeuvres, and are finished by 8:30 p.m. As the Smiths do not have outdoor lighting, they try to complete the dinner service before it gets dark.
Marketing is primarily word of mouth, with promotions on Facebook, the farm website and in the local paper. The participating chefs, vintners and brewers also market the events, and Bloomingcamp Ranch promotes their restaurants, catering services and tasting rooms. Guests pay $75 per person or $125 per couple. Reservations are taken by phone or online. The dinners usually sell out and have a wait list, with people attending from as far away as the Bay Area. Courtney says that some local dinner guests use the dinners as an occasion to convince their Bay Area friends to visit the valley.
Some tips and thoughts from Courtney Smith,Bloomingcamp Ranch:
- Allow plenty of time for coordinating all the people and tasks needed for each dinner. It can take at least a couple of months to coordinate one of these events. When we get going, and have a dinner each month, sometimes I am barely able to get caught up. For this year, I have already scheduled the first four dinners, due to start in May.
- Since the dinner site is by the walnut orchard but not close to the vegetable production area, we are not able to include a farm tour with the dinners. We are thinking about creating a video or picture display to illustrate the growing of the food people are eating, or perhaps creating an educational garden close by.
- MotherLode Harvest, a multi-farm CSA association near Jackson in Amador County licensed as a non-profit 501(c)5 organization, is planning its first public farm dinner in June this year as a fundraising event for the association. Emily Beals, president of MotherLode Harvest, shared this report.
The group's goal is to raise $1200 with this dinner to pay for an upgrade to their website. They are aiming for 60 guests, and hoping that many of the farmer-members of the association will be able to attend. In order to keep the event affordable for the farmers, the dinner will be priced at $35 for MotherLode Harvest members (including CSA subscribers) and $40 for non-members. Emily expects that most of the guests will be directly connected with MotherLode Harvest, and that most will come from within 50 miles of Jackson. Other fundraising activities at the dinner will include a silent auction and raffle. The dinner will be held at the farm of one of the association members who has a beautiful view of the Shenandoah Valley. Guests will be entertained with singing and dancing and talks about the solstice.
Rather than paying a caterer to prepare the dinner, the group will cook it themselves in a rented commercial kitchen. The food will be at least 80 percent sourced locally, with much of the menu grown specifically for the dinner by association members. Some members will donate locally produced food, and others will be paid the wholesale price for their products. Local wineries will contribute wine for the dinner. Future Farmers of America (FFA) students will help serve the dinner.
For this event, the association needed to obtain insurance and an alcohol permit to allow them to serve beer and wine. They will be renting tables and chairs, using compostable plates, and borrowing glassware and silverware. A local farmer is growing sunflowers for table decorations. In order to make sure they are ready, the group will be doing a complete rehearsal walk-through of the dinner a month before their event. Marketing activities include a flier that will be mailed to everyone on the mailing list and announcements in the regular newsletter.
Since this is the first dinner planned by the group, Emily promises to let us know any lessons learned after the event. She offers this advice:
- Everything needs to be planned well ahead of time.MotherLode Harvest started planning four months ahead of the dinner in order to tackle these needs:
- getting people on board to help
- getting the menu set
- making sure that local growers are growing the needed ingredients
- getting volunteers assigned to jobs
- renting needed things, including the porta-potty
- Everything needs to be planned well ahead of time.MotherLode Harvest started planning four months ahead of the dinner in order to tackle these needs: