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Agritourism potential big, ranchers told

Cattle ranchers, whose fortunes rise and fall largely with the price of beef, might think about throwing their gates open to visitors.

Ranchers gathered in Oakdale this month heard about the potential for agritourism from Holly George, who has helped develop it in the northern Sierra Nevada.

She suggested daytime or overnight visits to ranches, either to see cattle management up close or as part of nature study or other activities.

"I would advise you to look at what you have and genuinely share that," said George, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Plumas and Sierra counties.

She spoke at the 58th annual Oakdale Livestock Forum, an event for ranchers in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

The forum, attended by about 70 people, also featured a discussion on how rangeland might absorb climate-changing carbon.

Agritourism has been around for decades, notably at winery tasting rooms, produce stands and Christmas tree farms. They allow the farmers to sell directly to consumers and generate word-of-mouth publicity.

Beef cattle are a big business in and around Stanislaus County, but the ranches so far are not major players in tourism.

George said visitors are willing to pay ranchers for weddings, school tours, birdwatching, photography and other activities.

She cited the annual Eagles and Agriculture event near Carson City where people come to see raptors feasting on the placenta from recently born calves.

Judy Scheppmann, who has about 100 beef cattle near Farmington, said a horseback riding group, garden club gatherings and other activities use her 360-acre spread.

She is involved in Ag Ventures, taking chickens to schools in San Joaquin County, and would like to offer her ranch for lessons, too.

"It's a way of life, and I would hope the young people could come and appreciate where their food is produced," she said.

People planning to have visitors must make sure they have the needed permits and insurance.

This can be a sticky point. In recent years, some of the rural wedding venues in Stanislaus County have drawn complaints from neighbors about traffic, noise and litter.

George said ranchers can benefit from a state law that allows them to serve a small number of meals without installing an expensive commercial kitchen.

Nothing fancy is needed, anyway, she said, because the ranch itself is the draw. That, and a welcoming host.

"If you really, really don't like people at all, this is something not to consider," George said.

The threat of climate change, which many ranchers have doubted, could be another way to boost their income.

Rangeland grasses absorb carbon dioxide, believed to be building up in the atmosphere and causing a general warming of the planet.

"When it's growing, it's basically pulling in carbon from the atmosphere and holding it there, both above the ground and below the ground," said Bill Stewart, a cooperative extension specialist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ranchers would have to manage the rangeland in a certain way to capture these benefits. This could involve reducing the amount of grass that cattle eat, which could reduce beef production.

Regulators are devising ways to pay ranchers and other people who capture carbon. One option is to give them credits that they could then sell to businesses that are having trouble reducing their emissions.

Stewart said the credit system will be tricky because of the complexity of measuring emissions and the high fees charged by brokers.

Cattle also have been seen as causes of climate change, mainly because they emit methane, an especially troublesome gas, in their belches and manure.

The threat has been exaggerated, said Frank Mitloehner, an associate professor of animal science at the University of California at Davis.

Livestock account for only 3 percent of climate-changing emissions in the United States, far less than fossil-fuel burning, he said.

The livestock threat is bigger in parts of the world where pasture is created by clear-cutting forests that otherwise would capture carbon, Mitloehner said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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