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Agricultural Tourism: Emerging Opportunity

By Desmond Jolly, agricultural economist, UC Davis

Though agriculture in general, and particularly "heartland" agriculture, is in decline, some parts of agriculture are holding their own. Some specialty crops and more entrepreneurially driven parts of agriculture are not simply surviving, but thriving. We are in a new set of circumstances, and smart people who have the necessary skills and vision are developing a new agriculture. This new agriculture is more consumer-focused, and responds quickly and directly to an emerging set of interests, needs, and demands by consumers. It is also more closely linked to domestic consumers.

Petting zoo residents await visitors at an agri-tourism farm.
Petting zoo residents await visitors at an agri-tourism farm.
This trend started back in the 1970s, with an increased interest in fresh, nutritious, and health-oriented products. During that decade, we also witnessed an upsurge of environmental concerns about protecting natural resources and biological diversity. Along with this increased concern about our biological heritage, a corollary concern has evolved with regard to our social heritage, which includes the institution of the family farm. These concerns gave rise to the development of a host of institutions to address them, including the University of California Small Farm Program.

The New Agriculture

Opportunities for farmers to respond to emerging consumer needs came in the form of programs like the California Certified Farmers' Market program, which necessitated exceptions to California Agricultural Code requirements to enable the kind of packaging and merchandising that takes place at farmers' markets.

Farmers' markets facilitate a direct exchange of values between consumers and producers. Originally, farmers' markets catered to the emerging demand for farm fresh, diverse, flavorful produce that consumers were beginning to develop. But as importantly, it allowed consumers to have a different kind of food shopping experience, and consumer research shows that consumers increasingly value these attributes. The whole quality of the experience is perceived by the consumer to be of a different sort when he or she buys directly from the grower and can engage in a more primal relationship with the producer. It allows the consumer a kind of vicarious participation in this rich social heritage of the family farm.

Community Supported Agriculture has gained a niche in agricultural marketing and has, for many family farms, provided the critical difference in their economic stability and social sustainability. It diversifies and adds stability to their income stream, and provides interest free cash for production. But perhaps as importantly, it forges meaningful relationships between farmers and non-farmers, and between urban and rural people. Many members of Community Supported Agriculture programs spend several days per year camping in tents at the farm, participating in the work, and engaging socially with the farm family.

Michael Dimock leads a visioning session on the Central Coast.
Michael Dimock leads a visioning session on the Central Coast.
So, for many in Community Supported Agriculture programs, the benefits are more than just farm fresh produce. The benefits extend to participating in the rural farm experience and knowing that they are choosing to help preserve a vital part of our social heritage - the family farm. This phenomenon leads directly into the area of agricultural tourism. Like direct markets and Consumer Supported Agriculture, it facilitates an exchange of values between the consumer and the farm community. Agricultural tourism takes many forms, including the drive-by, as in those who patronize farm and roadside stands, and farm stays, where people come and stay for several days on the farm. Agricultural tourism includes educational tours, dude ranches, agricultural heritage festivals, tasting events, ag museums, county fairs, commodity festivals, (such as the Gilroy Garlic Festival), and a host of other events and opportunities for consumers and producers to generate a meaningful exchange of values. Consumers value the ambiance, the experience, the difference, the cultural exchange, and the products. Farmers get a sense of satisfaction from providing positive experiences for people, from relationships that develop with these people, and, of course, from receiving remuneration for their efforts.

At a recent agricultural conference, a member of the panel on direct marketing discussed how she left a mid-career executive position in Southern California, and returned to the family's apple operation. There she grew the business, almost totally based on agricultural tourism, into a $3,000,000 agritourism business. Others with requisite assets can develop a reasonable livelihood by developing various niche markets.

Important assets are entrepreneurial skills, vision, coordination, people and marketing skills. In addition to knowing what a produce buyer, packer or processor wants in terms of product quality, you need to have some sense of what people want, what they like to do, what kind of interests they have, and how to relate to them. Since you will often have other people interacting with your clients or customers, you will need to provide good training in customer relations and develop systems for quality control. The business becomes more of a front-line vs. a back-room operation.

The Role of UC Cooperative Extension

Ellie Rilla, right, talks with Mark Pasternak, Marin grape grower, at the Marin County agri-tourism workshop.
Ellie Rilla, right, talks with Mark Pasternak, Marin grape grower, at the Marin County agri-tourism workshop.
The Small Farm Program received a grant from USDA in 1997 under the Fund for Rural America Program to help foster an educational outreach program on agricultural tourism in California. We know that many agri-tourism activities, such as festivals, tasting rooms, and county fairs, have been going on in California for decades. But there was a need to widen participation by serving as a catalyst for developing the institutional framework to enhance the spread of agri-tourism across the state. 

In particular, the Small Farm Program has an interest in seeing how family farmers can benefit. To this end, the Small Farm Program has developed a number of partnerships to support pilot projects in different parts of the state - San Diego, Marin, and the Central Coast, in particular. In each area, there is a core of key people taking the lead in organizing steering committees; developing plans; including visions, goals and objectives; and designing an educational program that can empower family farms and rural communities to meet a growing consumer demand for the rural and agricultural experience.

The Marin effort is being led by Ellie Rilla, UC Cooperative Extension Marin County director. She collaborates with a number of organizations to organize educational programs on value-added products and agri-tourism. The San Diego project, also a collaborative effort, is led by UC Cooperative Extension San Diego staff members Diane Wallace, county director; Ramiro Lobo, small farm advisor; and Scott Parker, program representative. They are completing a strategic plan for agri-tourism education and coordination in San Diego County. The Central Coast effort, similarly a collaborative effort of tourism, agriculture, business, and government participants, is being coordinated by Jeff Rodriguez of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

At the Watsonville agri-tourism meeting, Nita Gizdich, right, addresses participants including Ramiro Lobo, farm advisor, San Diego County.
At the Watsonville agri-tourism meeting, Nita Gizdich, right, addresses participants including Ramiro Lobo, farm advisor, San Diego County.
A statewide Agricultural Tourism Working Group meets periodically to define an education and research agenda that can expedite the development of agri-tourism in California. Convened by Desmond Jolly, principal investigator, the Agri-tourism Project is comprised of university research and extension faculty, farm and consumer advisors, and industry representatives.


The changing demographics and lifestyles of California and U.S. populations offer opportunities for more closely linking agriculture to consumers. Exploiting these opportunities requires a new set of skills that are somewhat different from those typical of more conventional agriculture. Agri-tourism is direct marketing. Educational programs can assist in promoting the transition to this new agriculture, and the University of California, through its Small Farm Program and Cooperative Extension, is contributing to the development of agri-tourism and the new agriculture.