Agritourism continues to grow in Oregon

Agritourism is becoming increasingly popular.

Kate Davidson / OPB

Agritourism is becoming increasingly popular. What does it mean for farmers to welcome visitors to their land? Audrey Comerford is an Agritourism Coordinator with Oregon State University Extension. Dianne McGill is the co-owner of True North Orchards located near Salem. They join us with more about how this industry is affecting the state’s economy, and why more farmers are joining the trend.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Farmers who want to branch out into agritourism, meaning bringing people onto their land to pick fruit or hold events or learn about farming, have a new option. They can take an online course put together by Oregon State University. The course debuted at the beginning of this month; registration ends this coming Thursday. Audrey Comerford helped create the course. She’s the Agritourism Coordinator with Oregon State University Extension. Dianne McGill is the co-owner of True North Orchards in Salem. Welcome to you both.

Dianne McGilli: Thank you.

Audrey Comerford: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Dianne McGill first, can you give us a sense for what your business, True North Orchards does?

McGilli: We are a u-pick fruit orchard, located just east of Salem. And we specialize in creating a relaxing, peaceful, family environment for those who want to get back to nature. Our vision when we bought and then subsequently created True North was to have a place that people could get away from city life, and city noise, and city smells, and move into a rural environment, and hear birds and smell fresh smells and know where their food came from. So we’ve been delighted to have been on this journey. It’s been very fulfilling.

Miller: So from the beginning, agritourism, bringing people there and having their visits be an integral part of your bottom line, from the very beginning that was your business model?

McGilli: It was our vision when we bought the orchard, yes. The orchard was not set up as an agritourism operation. So we actually created it from the ground up, to turn it into a place, a destination spot, a boutique spot, that people would be welcome, and again, could learn about where does food come from? How does an apple tree grow? What other fruits can survive and really thrive in Oregon, and be available? And how does that work? How do they grow? All the kinds of information that I think people don’t know when they get here, and they’re really delighted to have had an opportunity to learn more by the time they leave.

Miller: Given that the place you bought, it was good for growing fruit, but it was not intended to be a place where the public would visit, what kinds of changes did you have to put in place to actually make it inviting to really change the business model?

McGilli: Structurally, there wasn’t a lot that we needed to do. The orchard was very well laid out. We have plums, pears, cherries, grapes, and of course many, many apple trees. So the ground was tourist ready if you will. What it lacked was information on why u-pick is a wonderful way to invest some time, and how it can be a charming and educational and fulfilling family activity for people who want to get away from it all for a while. So much of what we had to do with True North was all about marketing and customer service. The moment someone starts down the road from our main road, we have sought to create a welcoming environment that is lined with something beautiful to look at, and very bird friendly places so that there are some really good wildlife observation that can take place while they ‘re here.

And then we put together a small store on land, we call it our little general store, and we make available products that have been manufactured here in the orchards, such as cider, sweet cider, and grape juice, and so on and so forth . So it’s all designed to be a fun way to spend a couple hours out in nature with something educational to do.

Miller: Audrey Comerford, how did you become passionate about the combination of agriculture and tourism?

Comerford: I grew up in an agriculture community in the Willamette Valley here in Oregon, and was always around ag. My family background is horticulture. But what really basically drove the idea home for me was I worked on an agritourism operation, a larger one that was open year round, and I saw the educational role it played not only with adults, but also with our youth. Kids were coming to the farm, asking what the baby calf was, a little tan Jersey calf, thinking it was a deer or having no name for it. After a number of kids asked me that question, that was my lightbulb moment, realizing that these operations are not only helping with the farm viability and sustaining our family farms, but also providing an important education component for the public.

Miller: In your course description, the first two things that are mentioned are managing risk and understanding legal requirements, a far cry from cider and birds, this is the nitty gritty of business. How different are those requirements, risk and and and liability, from when you have people coming onto your farm, customers coming to the farm, and when you don’t?

Comerford: Absolutely. Any time an operation decides to open to the public, there are risks to take into consideration. Obviously injury can happen on farmland. There are some laws with posted signage that protect farm operations, but that does not take place solely. There’s insurance, there’s things to consider with injury, and then there’s also what you can legally do on farmland. The state of Oregon has laws that protect our farmland, and that allows only certain activities on that farm land, and usually that will require permits through the county. And so for those folks that are thinking, “I have a piece of farmland, I’m gonna invite thousands of people and let’s have a festival without talking to the county,” that’s not gonna work. So I always recommend talking to your county planning department, seeing what things you are allowed to do with your specific operation, because it really does differ. Some things in one county may not be permissible in others. We don’t want to dance around that topic. We want everybody to be legal and safe and provide a good experience and education experience for the public as well.

Miller: You’ve also written in the past about the importance of cultivating good neighbor relationships with fellow farmers. This is I guess less about regulations and more about not making local enemies. What are the issues that could come up?

Comerford: Well anytime you open your farm or ranch up, there’s gonna be increased traffic. And so that could be additional traffic on roads that your neighbors may not be thrilled with. It could be harder for your neighbor’s farming equipment to get through. If the roads have excess traffic on, it could be a noise thing.

And agritourism is not for every operation. There are some folks out there that are very against having the public onto their property. It’s a good option for some, but some of us get into farming for the privacy, and that’s absolutely understandable, and we respect that. And so being open and upfront with your neighbors, saying this is what we were thinking, maybe take them over some of your farm product as a gift, and have a conversation with them. If they all of a sudden look out their window and see lines of cars one day, may not be a good way to start out that relationship.

Miller: Dianne McGill, this particular OSU online course, it wasn’t available when you started. What do you wish you had known when you began?

McGilli: What I wish we’d known when we got started was the actual risk management and legal aspects of incorporating agritourism into a farming operation. Audrey makes an excellent point that there are many, many laws and rules and statutes that must be adhered to. I would first of all say that I am probably one of the state’s biggest proponents of keeping farmland farmland, and I support wholeheartedly regulations that really govern how you can and cannot use farmland.

What it does though, when you are new to the operation, if you are unfamiliar with the rules that are very different from farming as opposed to having people on your land, it took us a lot of sweat equity, and time, and trial and error to make sure that we had it right, and that our consumers were safe, that we were well protected, and that the operation was still as welcoming and charming as we envisioned it to be. So, there were a lot of things to really juggle in terms of putting it all together, and making sure that when it was launched, it worked well.

So the course that Audrey has been so instrumental in creating is a tremendous benefit, for either small farms, or larger operations that are considering incorporating some type of agritourism into their businesses. As Audrey said, it’s not for everyone. It does mean that there’s going to be a lot of increased traffic in where most people live. Most farmers live on their land, and so it sometimes can be really odd to have strangers wandering around your land. It’s something you get used to fairly quickly. But as Audrey said, it’s not for everyone.

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