A seed has been planted with local growers and farmers in Calaveras County and surrounding Central Sierra foothills communities.

Local officials hope a series of collaborative agritourism workshops in the upcoming months will help farmers expand their operations, and increase development of agritourism-centric startups.

Whether it’s Christmas tree farm tractor rides, wine walks or interactive ranch tours, Calaveras County is ripe with opportunities to invite agriculture tourists (or agri-tourists) from far and wide, according to Calaveras Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lisa Boulton.

“(Agriculture) is such a popular experiential part of tourism,” Boulton said. “People love being able to see the whole harvesting process, or engaging with animals. Most farmers don’t realize it’s an option, and that’s one of the reasons we’re pushing these workshops.”

Although comprehensive data on agritourism revenues throughout the county is practically nonexistent, Boulton said that the Visitors Bureau can track website and social media engagement rates on posts via Google Analytics to survey consumer interest and inform future marketing strategies.

“Right now, it’s an emerging market in the sense that the definition of agritourism has expanded,” Boulton said. “From horseback riding tours to vineyard tours, there’s a lot that falls under that category. It’s something that’s been on the tourism radar, but it hasn’t taken off yet to the degree that it could. I think these workshops will help us come up with ways to work together and bring business to farmers and people who are interested.”

Farmers and ranchers are encouraged to register for an upcoming agritourism class offered by the University of California, Davis, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP).

Organized in partnership with UC Cooperative Extension and a number of local partners, some of which include CalaverasGROWN, Calaveras County Economic Development, Calaveras Visitors Bureau and the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance, the workshop will provide farmers insight from local agritourism operators on how to expand their businesses through tourism.

Classes will be divided into three sessions scheduled for Jan. 30, Feb. 27 and March 27 from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, 2465 Gun Club Road, south of Angels Camp.

With lunch included, the registration cost is $60.

Defined as “a commercial enterprise at a working farm or ranch conducted for the enjoyment and education of visitors,” agritourism can include “farm stands or shops, U-pick, farm stays, tours, on-farm classes, fairs, festivals, pumpkin patches, corn mazes, Christmas tree farms, winery weddings, orchard dinners, youth camps, barn dances, hunting or fishing, guest ranches and more,” according to Penny Leff, UC SAREP agritourism coordinator.

“Agricultural operations in the Central Sierra foothill region offer a diversity of beautiful natural resources and unique experiences with local farmers and ranchers … Our workshops will give agricultural producers the contacts and tools to understand regulatory requirements and to develop and market their individual agritourism enterprises (and) add to their income,” Leff wrote in a Nov. 28 press release.

Participants will hear from experts in business planning, regulatory compliance, risk management, hospitality and cost-effective marketing, including social media, the release states.

Originally planned to be held in El Dorado County, the workshop was moved to the fairgrounds in Calaveras, a central location for farmers from Tuolumne, Amador and El Dorado counties.

The class is funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is also being presented in Watsonville in Santa Cruz County.

Despite its promising potential as an economic booster for Calaveras County, agritourism doesn’t fit into every agricultural business model.

“In concept, it’s a great idea,” said Talibah Al-Rafiq, owner of California Cashmere Co. in San Andreas, which is a goat farm.

Al-Rafiq used to host tours of the farm, but the activity was discontinued as it became too time-consuming and costly to afford liability insurance.

For some, the transition from farm to an agrotourism-based business model happens easily and becomes the primary focus.

Although not a local, Lauren Linkemyer of Kinderwood Farms in Santa Cruz, fell into a trending new agritourism industry by accident in April of 2017. Linkemyer has a small home-farm setup raising goats. She started in 2016 and fell in love with the practice. Linkemyer’s success as a provider of “goat yoga” is an example of how agritourism can be a viable practice.

“I didn’t come up with the idea for goat yoga. Our goat Greta Garbo (Instagram account gretathegoat) was going everywhere with us, and we had multiple friends ask us to start hosting goat yoga classes,” Linkemyer said. “One of the days that goat yoga was suggested to us, Greta happened to jump up onto my back while I was doing stretches. Figured it was destiny.”

Since then, the business has done well. “Business is great,” Linkemyer said.

“Classes typically sell out within the first few hours of posting,” Linkemyer said. “I love introducing people to animals they don’t normally have the opportunity to interact with.”

In an industry previously in hibernation, urban dwellers, tourists and even residents are rushing to get the chance to engage and play with animals previously thought of in former generations as only working animals.

“Agritourism is growing as more and more people are wanting to interact with nature and animals,” Linkemyer said.

Still, there are services in Calaveras County emerging with agritourism at the center of their business models, including two horseback riding businesses based in San Andreas planning to organize rides around New Hogan Reservoir near Valley Springs, according to Economic Development Director Kathy Gallino.

Gallino stressed that an important feature of the workshop will be helping farmers navigate the regulatory processes required to develop agritourism enterprises.

“Say you have a farm or ranch and want to make a rustic barn a venue for a wedding or special event. You’ll need building compliance, health and safety, permitting for food protection. We’ll have all that streamlined with the appropriate regulatory agencies involved,” Gallino said.

Gallino hopes to round up at least 40 farmers for the class.

Once sessions are complete, participants will be contacted in the following months to report on how they’ve incorporated agritourism into their operations and how it’s impacted their business.

Those interested can sign up at ucanr.edu/agtourcalaveras2019.

For more information, contact UC Davis SAREP Statewide Agritourism Coordinator Penny Leff at paleff@ucdavis.edu or call at 530-752-5208.

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Reporter

Davis recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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