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
The Hoes Down Harvest Festival invites all to play on October 7, 2017
Dru gave a spinning demonstration and introduced the visitors to a few sheep. Annie, Dru and two other women in the wreath-making group gave a wreath-making demo and led a tour of the farm. Dru remembers, “ It might have been a potluck; we didn't sell any food. There was some sort of music, probably bluegrass. People walked down to the creek. The trail was all overgrown then; there wasn't a path. It was a miracle that people came, even some people we didn't know! We probably sold about five wreaths that day.” That was the first Hoes Down Harvest Festival and the start of a tradition enjoyed by thousands of Northern Californians.
A few months later, at the annual EcoFarm Conference of California organic farmers, an announcement on the bulletin board invited everyone to the second annual Hoes Down Harvest Festival, a fundraiser for the EcoFarm Conference, tickets $5 a person. There was no going back.
In the early years, creativity thrived on a shoestring budget. Dru recalls, “for three or four years we used to to put up long irrigation pipes and string a huge nylon tarp that had come from Christo's ‘Running Fence' project to make a big tent.” These days, a crew sets up large festival tents and awnings for the event.
After running entirely on volunteer energy for more than fifteen years, the organizers hired a former Full Belly Farm intern, Gwenael Engelskirchen, as part-time Hoes Down coordinator in 2002. Gwenael, who now works with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, says she started in late spring. The monthly organizing meetings at Full Belly Farm usually were ten or twenty people – each taking responsibility for an area; music, crafts vendors, kids area, food, even a committee on how to make the festival environmentally friendly. For many years, before biodegradable plates and utensils, Hoes Down organizers borrowed hundreds of dishes from Davis's Whole Earth Festival, which were washed by several shifts of volunteers all day and into the night.
After months of organizing effort, another 400 volunteers show up for the festival to be part of what has become well-managed organized chaos. Gwenael says, “From a farming point of view, you watch the total transformation of a working farm to an event facility and back in a weekend. On Friday the volunteers arrive and set everything up – the tents, the tables, the stages and everything else. On Saturday, thousands of people arrive for the festival and many stay for Sunday tours and classes. On Sunday afternoon, the clean-up crew takes it all down. On Monday, Full Belly is back to work as a working farm.”
All of the proceeds from the Hoes Down Harvest Festival go to non-profit organizations that support sustainable agriculture and rural living. Over its thirty year history, the festival has raised about a million dollars. The 2016 Hoes Down Festival raised about $90,000. None of the money raised has gone to Full Belly Farm; it has all been donated to organic farming and local agricultural organizations. Beneficiaries include the Ecological Farming Association, Community Alliance with Family Farms, agricultural scholarships for local high school students, the local 4H club, Future Farmers of America, and other local organizations.
You are invited to bring friends and family to join the fun!
Full Belly Farm, 16090 County Road 43, Guinda CA 95637
MAIN FESTIVAL: Saturday, October 7, 2017 11am - 11 pm
BUY YOUR TICKETS HERE!
Adults: $25 online, $30 at the gate
Children (2-12): $5 - Under 2: Free
Saturday Night Camping: $30 per car - no reservations are needed!
Visit California Farms and Ranches - learn more at www.calagtour.org
The University of California Small Farm Program and UC Cooperative Extension advisors in four California regions are working with local partners to organize Regional Agritourism Summits for everyone involved in California agritourism. The Summits will be occasions for farmers, ranchers, county planners, the tourism community and others involved to share, learn, and plan together.
Regional Agritourism Summits 2017
Each summit was planned by a local team to best reflect the needs of the region, so each will be unique. Each summit will be a participatory, all-day session with lunch provided.
Participants are invited to bring marketing and organizational information to display and share.
To register and learn more, please visit http://ucanr.edu/summits2017. A registration fee of $25 is requested, payable online or by check.
- Yolo/Sacramento/Solano Agritourism Summit: Monday, February 13, 2017
UC ANR Building, 2801 Second Street, Davis CA 95618
- Sonoma/Marin Agritourism Summit: Thursday, February 16, 2017
Petaluma Community Center, Lucchesi Park, 320 N. McDowell Blvd, Petaluma CA 95954
- Stanislaus/San Joaquin/Merced Agritourism Summit: Thursday, March 23, 2017
Stanislaus County Agricultural Center, 3800 Cornucopia Way, Modesto, CA 95358
- Riverside/San Bernardino/San Diego Agritourism Summit: Wed., March 29, 2017
La Sierra University, 4500 Riverwalk Pkwy, Riverside, CA 92505
UC Small Farm Program Agritourism Resources
The UC Small Farm Program has been working for more than 15 years with UC Cooperative Extension advisors and others to develop resources and connections for California agritourism operators. The UC agritourism website hosts useful factsheets and research. The online agritourism directory and events calendarhelps visitors find farms and ranches to visit. And, the monthly California Agritourism newsletter shares news and resources for the agritourism community.
Funding for this project was provided in part by the USDA Farmers' Market Promotion Program.
More Information: Penny Leff, UCCE Agritourism Coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org, 530-752-7779.
Many small-scale farmers and ranchers are considering inviting guests for overnight stays as an additional revenue stream and to educate guests, if they're interested, about agricultural life. We talked with some experienced farm stay operators this week to learn more. Each farm stay is as unique as the farm and the farm owner.
Alice Kaiser of Casa de la Pradera in Fiddletown (Amador County), Nori and Mike Naylor of Naylor's Organic Family Farm Stay in Dinuba (Tulare County), Cathie Orr of Willow Creek Ranch in Mountain Ranch (Calaveras County), and Ruth Hartman of Coffee Creek Ranch (Trinity County) shared some experiences and advice for other farmers and ranchers thinking about farm stay operations. Here are their stories.
Casa de la Pradera
Accommodations offered at Casa de la Pradera are two upstairs bedrooms in the main farmhouse with a shared bath for a cost of $110 per night per room, which includes a full cooked breakfast for all guests. Alice says that it is great that the farm stay law allows all meals to be prepared on site (unlike a simple B&B), although only about 25 percent of her guests, mostly families with kids, take advantage of her offer of other meals for an extra charge. In addition, there is a tent platform available for those who prefer to sleep outdoors, rented for $60 per night through HipCamp.
Guests now find and book at Casa de la Pradera through a variety of avenues. About 25 percent of guests are primarily looking for a farm stay experience. These are usually families who want their kids to see things growing, says Alice. The children enjoy planting seeds in flats and gathering eggs from the chickens. The guests who are most interested in the farm stay activities usually find Casa de la Pradera through Farm Stay U.S. or through the farm's own website.
About 75 percent of guests are looking more for a nice get-away, or comfortable quiet lodging than a farm experience. Some are couples on vacation; some are foreign tourists on a trek; some are bicycle touring; some are wine tasting; some are skiing at Kirkwood. Casa de la Pradera is listed on the official bike travel map, is about half way between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and is five minutes away from about 40 wineries. The guests who are not so much interested in the farm tend to book through Airbnb, Booking.com or Hipcamp.
The lodging business keeps Alice busy. The house is usually full in peak season, April through September, and had significant winter business for the first time this year. Keeping up can be a challenge, particularly because the busy season for guests is the same as the busy season for farm work. Alice is comfortable with the current visitor flow, although she hopes to encourage more year-round bookings, and may look for someone to help with the cleaning.
Alice Kaiser offers this advice for others considering opening on-farm lodging:
- It's not for everyone. Having people in your own home, you have to want them to be there.
- You have to like to interact with people.
- You may want to learn the trade before you start. Alice worked for another B&B for a year and a half before opening her own.
Willow Creek Ranch
Visitors mostly come during school vacations starting before or during Easter break and going into Christmas. Families love to introduce their children to the farm life and how it was in "their day." Other visitors like to come to the area to snow ski, or visit the many local wineries or Calaveras County events including the "Mark Twain Frog Jump" at the Calaveras County Fair in May.
Guests come to Willow Creek from all over the world, but most are from the San Francisco Bay Area, about two or three hours away. They sometimes find the farm stay through Airbnb, VRBO or through Booking.com, but more often are referred by Farm Stay U.S. If guests are interested, they can try to milk one of the eight farm cows, gather eggs, pick from the garden, help with weeding, or maybe bottle-feed one of the “bummer” lambs who were abandoned by their mother sheep. The farm has no cell-phone coverage and very limited wifi. Sometimes this is a shock to younger visitors, who can take a couple of days to get on board and enjoy themselves. Although Willow Creek Ranch is described as a farm stay on a working farm, Cathie says that some of her Bay Area guests seem to be expecting more of a theme park with a “farm” theme. Sometimes they are surprised and disconcerted that it is really a farm, with mud, cow poop, guardian dogs and all.
Initial start-up challenges included getting the cabin set up so it's livable and getting the farm ready so that guests could enjoy their experience. Also, getting the word out and finding insurance were both difficult. The current challenge is mud. Willow Creek Ranch is close to last year's Butte fire, and also to the site of another fire that came within a mile of the house. The recent rain on the burned land has caused so much mud that Cathie decided to close the farm stay for a few months until everything dries out.
Other than the mud, the trend of visitor bookings has been going well this year, even in late Fall and Winter, with the cabin booked from before Thanksgiving into January. This is partly a result of a feature story on “America's Heartland” last year, and partly due to some effective paid marketing through the San Francisco Chronicle's online travel section. In fact, Cathie had to turn some potential guests away over the holidays.
Cathie and John have just finished upgrading one of the bathrooms for better handicapped access, and have added new furniture to the common sitting area in the cabin. Future plans include creating a building or a campsite that would be able to accommodate larger groups, with needed restroom facilities.
Cathie Orr offers this advice for farmers or ranchers considering a farm stay:
- You better be willing to take people who have different temperaments.
- You have to join the Better Business Bureau, the Visitors Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and other groups to get your name on all the lists and to get needed referrals, even if you don't go to the meetings.
- Get your money up front! (Airbnb collects for you, but Booking.com does not.)
Naylor's Organic Family Farm Stay
Guests come from all over the world to stay on the peach farm, with the majority of guests coming from overseas. About half the guests are families with children, while the other half are couples or groups of adults. Visitors generally find the farm stay online, often through Farm Stay US, through calagtour.org, through the farm's own website or, most recently, through Airbnb. Being an organic farm helps draw some visitors. Many guests are on their way to nearby Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, but also enjoy the idea of staying on a farm. The mobile home has been more popular lately than the rooms in the ranch house, and was booked every weekend in peak season (Spring and Fall) while the rooms were booked less often. However, the whole house was full in February for the World Ag Expo, held nearby.
Permitting went smoothly with Tulare County for the farm stay start-up. Attracting visitors took a bit of time. Nori says that the timing of their start-up was perfect as people were beginning to look for farm experiences. She got the cheapest website she could find and listed the operation everywhere she could, including Farm Stay US, calagtour.org and other sites. The first year was a little slow, but that was good, Nori says, as they were still learning and also farming full-time.
Mike has recently retired from full-time farming and has sold or leased the commercial organic orchards, although he still helps and consults. The Naylors now operate the farm stay and a U-pick orchard. Last year they were a bit busier than they wanted to be. Mike says that he didn't get to go fishing once last summer and didn't get to many of the projects he'd hoped to start. Next year they will block off more days to give themselves a little more free time. They are also looking into expending the operation to include a campsite for guests.
Nori Naylor offers this advice for others considering a farm stay operation:
- You have to love people. You need to be very accepting and welcoming and hospitable.
- You need to set a schedule that gives you some free time.
- I think farm stays are a great way to go, but you need to have a purpose and a mission beyond the financial. Think about what kind of experience you want to offer and what you want to teach.
Coffee Creek Ranch
The ranch is next to the Trinity Alps wilderness area and offers pack trips and hunting trips into the wilderness. Some visitors are not interested in the horseback riding or other activities, so Coffee Creek Ranch also offers a B&B option (lodging and breakfast) for $200 a night. Ruth says that she could make the business work if she could fill all the cabins as simple B&B lodging, but the horses, meals and other activities are needed to attract a full range of guests.
From the beginning a major challenge has been maintenance of the facilities and upkeep of the generator (the source of power for electricity). There is a need to remodel something every year. Ruth says she faces a challenge now finding good people to work at the labor-intensive operation. She is also experiencing difficulty recruiting enough guests. The ranch's season is Easter through Thanksgiving, and it was not full in 2016. To help attract more guests, Ruth is working with a marketing company to draw attention to her website. She will also be getting more help soon as her son joins the business.
Ruth Hartman offers this advice to potential guest ranch operators:
- Research the market. It's hard to create a loyalty base, so decide what you want to bring to the table that is different and of value.
- Understand whatever animals you will be bringing in. Learn about different breeds and select the most appropriate breeds for your operation.
- Decide if you really want to open a business in California, considering all the regulations.
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.