Successful Agricultural Tourism Ventures
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By Susan McCue, editor, Small Farm News
From Christmas trees to apple pies, agri-tourism thrives in unique niches across the state. On a 450-acre parcel purchased by his grandfather in the 1950s, Riverside County farmer Gregg Palmer operates a 50-acre Christmas tree farm that draws customers from 89 zip codes throughout southern California.
Palmer and his brother David established the Live Oak Canyon Christmas Tree Farm in 1980 after seeing many local growers with similar operations who appeared to be doing quite well. "I think both things were illusions," laughs Palmer.
Pumpkins take center stage during October, when guests include school tour participants and families. As many as 1,000 school children per day tour the farm via hay rides, then partake in farm education sessions and visit the petting zoo. A picnic area with tables placed beneath poplar trees provides a rest area after tours. Children and their parents snack while the latter fill out questionnaires that provide Palmer with tour feedback. Visitors also shop in a gift tent overflowing with fall accessories, or enjoy entertainment, food, and craft fairs.
Christmas season kicks off in mid- November, when people come to reserve trees. To meet customer requests, Palmer purchases 20 percent of his trees from small fir tree growers in Oregon, where the tree prefers the cool climate to his area's hot, dry weather. The firs receive special treatment upon arrival when they are recut and placed in water. Some customers still prefer his on-farm trees, predominantly Monterey Pine, with some Aleppo and Sierra Redwood varieties making up the remainder. All trees bear tags that are pulled off and filled out by customers. The demographic information is later used for the farm's mailing list.
While pumpkin season brings the highest volume of visitors, Christmas season financially "carries us through," says Palmer. In addition to tree selling, he offers a variety of events and reopens his gift tent stocked with Christmas items hand-picked during cross country gift show trips.
Palmer knows the value of word of mouth advertising, and asks himself before each season begins, "What can we do this year that will make them tell their neighbor?" This season, he introduces a train ride that ferries children around the farm. Other marketing methods include a direct-mail pumpkin newsletter with a 15,000-reader distribution culled from the Christmas tree tag list, and a Christmas opening weekend invitation and newsletter. Palmer also buys newspaper advertising, trades with radio stations, runs radio spots, and submits press releases and calendar items to 70 newspapers and television stations in the area, with reportedly excellent coverage results. He also puts his 3,000 feet of freeway frontage to good use by putting up many freeway signs.
Palmer's prime Christmas tree farm location prompts regular bids to buy the land he co-owns with other family members. "We have current offers from the biggest retailers in the U.S.," says Palmer, who adds that a deal is likely in the next few years. "I have some say in it, but for the good of all, I would have to agree with them that it's the thing to do." But Palmer believes there is a need for small farms. "A place where consumers can connect to farmers is a good thing," says Palmer. Look for his operation elsewhere, either on another area of his family's property or a new patch of ground where Christmas trees and pumpkin patches can peacefully coexist. o
Rita Cardoza lives in a big valley just off one of Sonoma County's busiest roadways, Lakeville Highway. Years ago, she taught school, worked on the family ranch with her husband, and raised two children. "I think it was about the time number three came along that it was clear that something needed to change," says Cardoza, who needed additional on-farm income to stay home with her children.
Instead, she started growing and selling produce to local stores, then opened a small farm stand just off the highway on her neighbor's property. "People will go anywhere for good tomatoes, corn and melons," says Cardoza. And they did come, in such large numbers that she had trouble with traffic, county regulations, and even a farm stand robbery.
She and her family realized the operation was not what they intended. So they sought an enterprise to entice people to travel two miles back to their farm. A pumpkin patch seemed ideal. "But I knew that people wouldn't just come for the product," says Cardoza. "We realized what they're coming for is to touch us ... to get a piece of what they believe country life is all about."
The idea succeeded. For seven years, the Cardozas have opened their pumpkin patch during October, when up to 6,000 people visit daily to experience country life. That figure includes up to 200 school children per day, who visit the haunted house, play in the children's garden and a hay bale maze, and check out the discovery room - a playhouse with rubber vegetables and a cook stove in it. The site also includes a farm museum, a play area, a pond and picnic area, and a petting zoo where actual animal petting is limited to goats since the turkeys were caught stealing children's lunches.
When Cardoza notes a need among her visitors, she addresses it. "We have by nature created a society that is less self directed, so we have learned to give out little maps and have a program of activities," she says. To keep things lively, she also added entertainment. "Elvis appeared out of the cornfield last year," she reveals.
Part of her success comes from her ability to find agri-tourism support from local groups. "We have hay rides with docents that go out into the valley floor and tell them about the history of the ranch and talk to them about farming," she says. But large crowds also have drawbacks for Cardoza, who genuinely enjoys working with the public. "We want to have more personal rapport," says Cardoza. "But I have to tell you, that month pays the bills." Speaking recently at an agritourism workshop in Marin County, Cardoza advised farmers considering agricultural tourism to ask themselves what they must do to honor their lifestyles. "Most of you are in ag not because you're getting rich, but because you like what you do," she says. She urges farmers to view their agri-tourism plans in that context.
by Jeannette Warnert, public information representative, University of California
When Nita Gizdich posted signs on a highway near her farm offering U-pick olallieberries, the curious few who turned off the road all had one question: What are olallieberries? When the sign was changed to "blackberries" and the customers began flowing in, a concept vital to her success in agri-tourism was driven home. "Always listen to your customers," she says. "They'll tell you exactly what to do."
Ranch matriarch Gizdich toiled for years alongside her husband, Vince, whose parents established the farm in the 1930s. With her husband now ill, farm management has been passed on to the next generation, sons Mitchell and Vince, but Nita is still one of Gizdich Ranch's hardest workers and fiercest promoters.
"We would never have survived just by growing berries and apples," Gizdich says. "There used to be 10 big pack-out places in Watsonville. Now we're down to one." Instead of rushing the fruit to market, Gizdich busies herself attracting the market to the ranch, starting with apple blossom viewing in April and continuing through the spring and summer with U-pick strawberries, olallieberries, boysenberries, and raspberries. In September, the apple trees attract pickers. Hay rides and thousands of school children on field trips to the farm round out the fall. All year, the bakery serves pies and deli sandwiches.
Gizdich never stops marketing. She even brings flyers on vacation to pass out to fellow tourists. She advertises in parenting magazines, sends postcards to regular customers, pays for highway signs on her neighbor's property with all the homemade pie they can eat, and is always available for the news media. "I don't care when. It's free," she says.
Gizdich's voice turns sad when she talks about liability insurance. "That will close us one day," she says, telling of a U-pick neighbor that went out of business after two visitors tripped and fell on the farm, sustaining minor injuries. Following their lawsuits, future liability insurance was denied. "We've got an umbrella (insurance policy) that is so heavy now it's going to cave in," she said. "We are just hoping everything will go smoothly." But her enthusiasm is not dampened. In June, Gizdich hosted the 33-member Small Farm Program agri-tourism working group with much pride, sharing the secrets of her success - "Hard work, sweat and no loans" - as generously as the farm-pressed, crisp apple juice she poured into paper cups.