Helping farmers tap into tourism

Potential to profit from those passing through the area

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comNovember 27, 2012 

Can tourism based around agriculture give Merced County an economic boost? It might never rival Napa Valley, but some in the local farm community see a potential harvest.

In an effort to bring in revenue for local farm communties, the UC Cooperative Extension will put on classes in agritourism over the coming months.

"We can offer a truly rural setting for people who want to know what agriculture's really like," said Maxwell Norton, UC Cooperative Extension advisor. "Those types of things have a potential, and we won't know what the potential is until we try things."

Experienced agritourism operators — as well as experts in regulatory compliance, business planning, risk management and marketing — will discuss how to plan and start a tourism business based on agriculture, Norton said.

Local farmers will be on hand to share their experiences, such as Stephanie Marchini, who runs the annual Bear Creek Pumpkin Patch.

"We live in this bread basket that's so amazing," she said. "We don't recognize how beautiful our valley is to people outside of California or even just outside of our valley."

Marchini is also co-owner of Vista Ranch and Cellars in Merced, which opened in 2010, and has become a poster-child for agritourism.

Its event hall regularly lures tourists using its agricultural flare, which includes local wine tasting and veggies grown on site.

"It's just really, really fun to meet all the people who are traveling and going to Yosemite," she said.

The workshops are designed to give farmers and ranchers contacts and tools to start potential businesses such as wineries, farm stands, ranch vacations, corn mazes, festivals and outdoor recreation.

However, farmers will need some ingenuity for agritourism, Norton said. "Our producers will have to look for unique experiences that people will find interesting.

"We might be able to catch the hundreds of thousands of people who drive through our community going other places," Norton added. "I'd like to think that Merced County is more than just a place that you drive through."

There are three sessions for the course, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 3, Jan. 7 and Feb. 12. The classes will be at the UC Cooperative Extension, 2145 Wardrobe Ave., Merced.

Registration is available at https://ucanr.edu/agtour.merced.12 or by calling (530) 752-7779. The cost is $50, and space is limited.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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