Subscribe

Agritourism gains ground in Napa, Marin, Sonoma counties

Sonoma County Farm Trail, which promotes the viability of the family farms, lists these locations as participants in agri-tourism. Guests should check before visiting.

Redwood Hill Farm, Sebastopol

McClelland’s Dairy, Petaluma

Achadinha Cheese Co., Petaluma

Tara Firm Farms, Petaluma

Green String Farm, Petaluma

Dry Creek Peach & Produce, Healdsburg

Beyond food, farms are increasingly producing a bumper crop of another commodity – tourists.

Revenue from visitors slurping, sipping, studying, sightseeing or shopping on farms tripled from 2002 to $949.3 million in 2017, with $84 million in California alone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. Since those figures were compiled, droughts and later a coronavirus outbreak forced more ranchers and farmers to rethink their business models.

Millennials, in particular, have contributed to this desire to learn how our food is cultivated and how to take part in that education.

“I think this will continue to grow. We have a younger generation coming back to the farm. And as they have more income and more families, they want to continue to have these experiences. I see no reason that (this trend) would go down,” American Farm Bureau Federation Economist Veronica Nigh said. “And with the pandemic, people are getting excited about being places outside their homes.”

California Farm Bureau Policy Analyst Rob Spiegel said interest in educational programs has risen substantially in the Golden State.

“Generally speaking, the industry — especially in California — there have been a lot of initiatives like the farm-to-fork dinners. Consumers want to know how animals are raised and to know if chemicals are used,” Spiegel said.

Call it nature’s reversal of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s legendary lyrics: “They pave paradise to put in a parking lot.”

In our own back yard

North Bay farms and ranches stretching across Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties have jumped on the bandwagon in luring guests and visitors to learn how they operate and sample everything from olive oil and wine to beef and produce.

Nestled in the Petaluma Gap on the border of Sonoma and Marin counties, the roots of the McEvoy Ranch stem from Nan Tucker McEvoy’s love of Italian culture. The newspaper heiress bought the 550-acre cattle ranch in 1990 and used the bucolic setting to plant 1,000 olive tree seedlings from Tuscany, without realizing the full extent of the path she would lay for future generations — in her own family. A private person who provided limited tours, McEvoy died in 2015.

Her son Nion has carried the legacy — with the help of Nan’s longtime gardener-turned-ranch President Samantha Dorsey, who celebrates her 20th year in 2021, along with ranch manager Michael Morelli, whose family owned the ranch he’s lived at or worked on for 73 years.

Coming out of pandemic, 1,150 guests in May alone (900 more than what was recorded in an average month in 2019) have gone down to the ranch to sip, slurp and shop on its serene Red Hill Road grounds, where the experience involves olive oil from the 57-acre orchard and wine tasting on the newly created patio next to one of its ponds alongside sweeping meadows.

“I think Nan would be very proud,” Dorsey said, while glancing over the visitors enjoying the patio grounds. In some respects, Dorsey’s career grew up on the McEvoy Ranch. She worked with Nan, starting out as the resident gardener.

Today, Dorsey and the younger McEvoy have converted a milk barn into an event space. There are gardening workshops and annual pruning demonstrations. The Community Mill Day invites neighbors to enjoy the harvest in mid-November.

“It’s part passion and part compassion for our community. We want to be a good contributor,” Dorsey said.

Difficulties bring need to diversify

The McEvoy Ranch has endured enough challenges to keep Dorsey busy.

The drought has reduced the water level of the ponds by two-thirds, with 22 million fewer gallons to use on the ranch. The plight is one that farmers know all about this year. To Dorsey, it’s a good thing olives use less water than most crops.

“The trees will survive, but the crop may be bad,” she said, referring to a less prolific harvest.

Much is at stake. Dorsey declined to disclose the privately held company’s annual revenues, but did offer that the retail store — which sells all things olives, wine and other gifts — contributes a third of the business to the bottom line. Sales from e-commerce and wholesale accounts for its beauty products split the remainder.

Expansion is imminent. Beyond hosting special events, the McEvoy Ranch offers three memberships for visitors wanting to become regulars. There are the “Foodie” club priced between $99 and $120; “Vintner” at $140-$160; and “Gourmand” at $199-$225.

The McEvoy Ranch has also joined in on the proliferation of CBD-infused products, with the recent launching of the Ode Oasis brand of olive oil offering the non-psycho active ingredient in cannabis that is intended to have health benefits.

Sonoma County Farm Trail, which promotes the viability of the family farms, lists these locations as participants in agri-tourism. Guests should check before visiting.

Redwood Hill Farm, Sebastopol

McClelland’s Dairy, Petaluma

Achadinha Cheese Co., Petaluma

Tara Firm Farms, Petaluma

Green String Farm, Petaluma

Dry Creek Peach & Produce, Healdsburg

In the wintertime, the ranch opens its orchid greenhouse for events to small groups between 10- to 20 guests.

This summer, Morelli said he’s noticed an influx of guests taking in the surroundings and atmosphere on the ranch.

“It seems like there are all sorts of people coming and going here,” the ranch manager said, adding he’s surprised by the farm’s renewed popularity since the post-pandemic recovery. “When people leave and go home, I think they get a charge out of making their lives better. They’re rejuvenated and inspired to eat better. I think that will make this business bigger.”

Brahm and Poorvi Kohlisomethentert brought their dog and child to the ranch’s tasting patio for a day of relaxation on a recent Saturday trip to Bodega Bay from Burlingame.

“She loves nature, and we feel like with wine tasting, (most places) only do wine and it’s not a place for families. I think they’re very accommodating here,” she said.

Family themes on the farm

At Connolly Ranch and Educational Center, co-Executive Director Heidi Soldinger, knows all about operating a haven for families wanting to get away to life on the farm.

Visitors learn farming operations, including sheering sheep.

“We’re seeing such an influx of multiple generations of people coming to the farm. There’s definitely more of an interest in the farm. To families with children, it becomes a holistic experience. I think people are looking to engage in meaningful ways to the farm,” Soldinger said.

With a nod to the Connolly Ranch, Napa County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas is convinced the growth of agritourism benefits more than the visitors in expanding their ag knowledge.

“Because of the fires and COVID, everyone (running a farm) is looking to expand the viability of their place. Certainly, this is one option that teaches people about agriculture,” Klobas said, referring to the value of consumers learning where their food comes from.

Still, the business model may not work for all Wine Country farms and ranches. Farmers wanting to explore the extracurricular offerings may need to consider whether their locations will accommodate more traffic.

Then, Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi warned agritourism services are not endorsed by her organization if it comes at the expense of taking land out of food production.

“We’re against taking out land (used) for agricultural production. But we realize that more consumers want to be educated, and the neighbors must be aligned with (the programs),” she said.

Still, Tesconi sees the far-reaching benefits of expanding farmers’ options to pull in more income and share what matters to them.

“Our farmers love to tell their story,” she said.

To UC Davis agritourism coordinator Rachael Callahan, this method of doing business on the farm may mean anything from a farm stand to a festival.

“We see it as a valuable piece to the puzzle. It is a way for farms and ranches to diversify their income, to have additional ways of earning money if their main crop fails, the restaurant they sell to goes out of business or any number of things go wrong,” she said.

Beefing up its business offerings

Loren and Lisa Poncia take the agritourism part of their business seriously, as a way to sustain the cattle ranch in Tomales and get the message out about how local food is sourced.

“Our agri-business is a 100% link to our core ranch business,” she said.

The couple uses farm-to-table dinners, tours, overnight cabin rentals as well as wedding and fundraiser space to support its 1,000-acre, grass-fed cattle ranch in Marin County. The couple’s open house barbecue is set for Aug. 28.

“It’s a way to bring people to the ranch and bring them closer to their food source and learn about it. Before COVID, we had dozens of tours every year,” Lisa said. “We love it. It’s a true full-circle moment for us and the guests when people come to the ranch and like what they’re seeing.”

To many who hail from the city, the experience seems foreign.

“There are people who had no idea food was produced 40 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge,” she said. “It’s been a huge part of our lives for 15 years.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette