El Dorado - From Gold Rush to Agritourism: The Search for Sustainable Development in California' Sierra Nevada Foothills
Desmond A. Jolly, Ph.D., and Mario Moratorio, Ph.D.
Presented at the 1st World Forum of Agritourism and Rural Tourism
Perugia, Italy, September 17-27, 2000
In an ultimate sense, the notion of sustainable development may be an unattainable chimera. Still, it is a worthy notion that, in the past two or three decades, has motivated a critique of approaches to natural resource use based on short run exploitation and invasive importations of developmental patterns that alienate and ultimately destroy local cultures. Thus, modes of development can be critiqued in relation to their respect for, and compatibility with, indigenous and local natural human and cultural resources. In an integrated global context, the need to generate income and employment impels decision-makers to pursue economic development based on exploitation of natural resources, manufacturing, including cottage based industries and handicrafts, and services. Some economies evolve seamlessly through a sequence of development modes, others suffer serious economic dislocations as structural factors undermine the prevailing mode. If they are fortunately disposed, they can make strategic decisions, implement plans, and reinvent themselves to take advantage of emerging opportunities in light of prevailing constraints.
El Dorado's Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush, which engendered a massive immigration to California a mere one hundred and fifty years ago, is now a historical artifact, evidence of which is found in museum exhibits, books and the mine tailings that dot the foothill landscapes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Great cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento developed to service the activities of gold extraction and trade. Meanwhile, Native American cultures that had endured for thousands of years, were swept away in a trace. The Gold Rush did not just eliminate large numbers of Native American cultures, it proved to be a great disincentive for agricultural development. John Sutter, a pioneer agricultural developer, found that labor to thresh his wheat and operate his mill had found more lucrative employment in the mines. Gold was there for the harvesting and neither wheat nor any other agricultural production could compete. Gold mining soon evolved from basically gathering to corporate mining requiring large investments as the "easy pickings" diminished and lodes became more and more inaccessible. Miles of subterranean tunnels were dug and subsequent hydraulic mining washed away whole mountainsides and obliterated several ports on the Sacramento River with its debris. Hydraulic mining was outlawed in 1884 and gold mining, per se, was shut down by Presidential Executive Order early in World War II. Gold mining, as a major California industry, lost its luster and never again became a significant economic enterprise.
The Development of a Wine Industry
Contemporaneous with the rush to find and extract gold in El Dorado County, was the establishment of grape vineyards to provide for the needs of the miners and ancillary populations. By 1855, over 5,000 acres came under cultivation and with 3,000 acres of vineyards supplied food and spirits to the mining settlements in El Dorado County. By the turn of the century, more than 4,300 acres of vineyards were planted in the County, the biggest grape acreage in California. Mission grapes were the dominant variety and brandy was the main product, but decline in the County population around the early 1900s, resulted in the abandonment of many of the early vineyards.
During the 1920s, prohibition once again stimulated the County's grape industry by encouraging home wine making, and grape acreage peaked at about 5,000 acres during this time. But, after the repeal of prohibition, lower wine prices and the introduction of grape phylloxera into the vineyards, resulted in a general decline of acreage during the 1930s. Low grape prices after World War II forced the abandonment of the few remaining vineyards, and wine grape growing almost disappeared from El Dorado County, with only a few acres remaining in the area by 1950.
However, a steady increase in demand for fine table wines at the end of the 1950s, stimulated a statewide search for new growing areas capable of producing top quality wines. During 1965, several trial plantings were established in El Dorado County. Grapes from these plantings were evaluated by the Department of Enology at the University of California at Davis and provided evidence of the suitability of El Dorado County for producing wines of exceptionally fine quality. During the 1970s, several progressive growers developed new grape acreage with the help and encouragement of the then County Agricultural Commissioner Edio Delfino and Farm Advisor Emeritus Dick Bethell. Boeger winery was started in 1972 with a few acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel that were planted on their own roots or on AxR1 rootstocks. Sierra Vista and El Dorado wineries started crushing grapes in 1977, while Fitzpatrick (Somerset Vineyard) and Madro-a opened in 1980. Granite Springs opened in 1981 and Gerwer Winery in 1982. The progress of the wine industry in the County was slow but steady.
During the next twenty years, fifteen other wineries were added to the pioneers, reaching a total of seventeen by 1996, with an estimated production of 83,500 cases of excellent quality wines. Today, eighteen wineries produce more than 100,000 cases of wine. All the wineries sell directly to the public in their tasting rooms. One of them sells over 60% of its production directly to the public, with considerable benefit to the profit margin. Each year, during two weekends in April, all the wineries participate in a collective Open House, the Passport Weekend, that attracts more than 2500 visitors. Each visitor pays $50 for the privilege of spending a day visiting wineries, enjoying their fine wines, talking to the owner and winemakers, and tasting delicious food, prepared by local chefs, highlighting El Dorado's local produce.
Pears, Apples and Diversification
Before 1958, when pear decline was found in El Dorado, the county produced more than 52,000 tons of pears from 3400 acres. During the next few years, pear production was severely affected by the disease. By 1962, less than 8,500 tons were produced from 2,350 acres. As a result of the pear decline epidemic, replanting of pears was rather limited, instead, apples became the crop of choice. The development of new apple orchards and changes in the grower's marketing strategies, gave birth to Apple Hill, a successful direct marketing program, presently involving more than 35 growers in the Camino-Fruitridge area.
Although apples are the most important pomme fruit crop in the County, pears remain a crucial component in El Dorado's economy. Placerville Fruit Growers Association, the only grower cooperative that includes more than 30 growers who grow over 500 acres, recently committed several hundred thousands dollars to purchase an AWITA automatic packing line.
After the pear industry was almost destroyed by "pear decline" in the 1950s, many growers replanted their orchards on resistant rootstocks introduced by Farm Advisor Emeritus Dick Bethell and began a process of crop diversification. Apples, cherries, wine grapes, peaches, nectarines, and Christmas trees are now grown in the area and support a region-wide ranch-marketing program that brings more than 30,000 visitors to the area each year.
Apple Hill - Evolution of an Agri-tourism Destination
Apple Hill, a successful apple growers' organization located in El Dorado County, was formed over 36 years ago. It was motivated by the search for a sustainable economic use of the land, but its proximate stimulus was a visit to Oak Glen in Southern California by one of the growers, Gene Bolster. The concept of combining tourism and direct marketing was introduced. Bethell, Bolster and Ed Delfino (former El Dorado County Agricultural Commissioner) worked assiduously to promote the new marketing concept and to develop the organization.
The Apple Hill organization transcended the natural independence and conservatism of the local ranches to create an environment where all could benefit from cooperation. Promotional efforts included "Press Days" where members of the media were hosted by ranches as well as creative targeting of urban consumers. Gradually, value added products such as pies, preserves and handicrafts were integrated into agtourism offerings. Bed and Breakfast inns developed, as did music festivals and the like. Each year a comprehensive booklet with Apple Hill listings is distributed as an insert in metropolitan newspapers in Sacramento and other metropolitan areas in Northern California.
The Apple Hill Growers Association has grown from the original 16 ranches to about 45 currently, if we include Christmas tree growers and vineyards.
The critical factor in the ability of declining regions to reinvent themselves in the context of existing constraints and emerging opportunities is leadership. Leadership can develop alternative visions of the future, share the vision, create motivation, and engender consensus on a decisive course of action. In the case of El Dorado County, California, there was ample motivation to find potentially viable alternatives. But it took local leadership to enable the County to utilize its human and natural resources in new ways and to access the metropolitan consumer market which lay within one hour of El Dorado, for agricultural tourism. El Dorado County and Apple Hill provide a template for emulation in other similarly endowed areas and shows the economic and social potential for agricultural tourism to provide support for sustainable agricultural development.
About the authors: Desmond Jolly is an Agricultural Economist in the Department of Agricultural Economics, University of California, Davis; Mario Moratorio, is a farm advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension, Yolo County.