New rancher Kris Eldrige-Squire stepped onto the earthen dam and looked over sunlit waters hemmed in by grassy knolls and a strip of thick reeds.
“You can see why our family fell in love with it,” he said as he took in the view.
A year ago, Eldridge-Squire and his family purchased the 238-acre property, long known for its grass-fed cattle and pigs, its subscription deliveries of meat and organic vegetables and its regular farm events for city folk. The new owners plan to retain all those components, including free weekend farm tours and paid events like the October Pumpkins on Pikes, where lit jack-o’-lanterns are placed at dusk on poles in a field outside the spacious event barn.
“We want it to be a destination,” said Eldridge-Squire, who lives on the ranch with wife, Oona Eldridge-Squire, their young son, Rowan, and father-in-law Mark Squire, a partner in Good Earth grocery stores in Marin County. “We want families to come out to enjoy our farm, our land.”
Sonoma County has long attracted visitors to its farms to cut a Christmas tree, pick a pumpkin or buy produce at a farm stand. But agriculture leaders, particularly the younger among them, today are exploring new business opportunities in an era when the county has garnered a reputation for premium food and wine and when so many visitors want to enjoy special experiences on their getaways here. It will also serve them, they say, to have urban dwellers better understand where their food comes from.
“They want an adventure,” said Stephanie Larson, the county director for the UC Cooperative Extension. “That’s the big thing now.”
Larson is exploring with local tourism officials how to get tour groups and members of visiting business conferences to take a day exploring the county’s farms and food producers. For example, she said, such tours might include the chance to milk a cow, make cheese and have a farm-fresh lunch and a glass of wine.
Visitors hoping to set foot in farm country this spring can do so at the annual Farm Trails weekend on April 29-30. More than 40 farms and food producers, including Tara Firma Farms, will open their operations for the “Blossoms, Bees & Barnyard Babies” weekend. The event’s visitors can pet critters, buy products and take tours that focus on the growing of crops and animals.
By most accounts, the county’s farm tourism efforts remain fledgling. Ag leaders maintain that paid food tours, farm stays and private events could help farmers, just as on-farm food production, farmers markets and subscription food box sales have added to the bottom line.
“The new farm model is going to involve all of the above,” said Lynda Hopkins, a Sonoma County supervisor and a partner with husband Emmett Hopkins in the relatively new Foggy River Farm southwest of Windsor.
The county has a long tradition of attracting visitors to take in the spring apple blossoms in west county and other farm experiences, Hopkins said. But new opportunities mean that today’s farmers “are going to have to think out of the box.”
And, ag leaders say, farmers already have a model to follow in the county: the wine industry.
“It is the standard in this region of how agritourism works,” Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler told attendees this February at an agritourism conference held in Petaluma.
Over the last decade, the North Bay’s artisan cheese makers also have enjoyed success in attracting visitors, Eyler said, and companies in the wine and cheese sectors might benefit from working together on tourism because “they compliment each other.”
The agritourism conference, sponsored by the UC Cooperative Extensions in Marin and Sonoma counties, featured a Marin County dairy family that has branched out into both food production and special events to attract farm visitors.
The Giacomini family, which has been ranching on Tomales Bay since 1959, started to produce a classic blue style cheese in 2000 under its new Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Then in 2010, the family opened The Fork, a culinary education center on the ranch that offers classes, private dinners and tours.
“It’s about giving our guests a deeper connection about what farm-to-table means,” said Jill Giacomini Basch. She acknowledged the family looked to the winery world to help fashion The Fork’s offerings.
Marin County has another example of how to connect farms and tourists. Its West Marin Food and Farm Tours regularly takes a van load of visitors on trips to farms, bakeries, cheesemakers and oyster operations. Its “Flavors of West Marin Tour” costs $195 per person.
The tours are similar to walking food tours available in both big cities and small towns. But the West Marin tours include the chance to take visitors across a stunning rural landscape and to show them “where your food is coming from because it has a huge impact on the planet,” said Elizabeth Hill, the tour operator.
Hill, who has run the business for five years, works with nearly 30 farms and food producers to offer different types of tours. She said the right person could replicate such experiences on farms and ranches here.
“Absolutely without a doubt it could be great in Sonoma County,” she said.
Brigid Maloney, who offers wine and beer tours in Sonoma and Napa counties, attended the agritourism conference in search of non-alcoholic venues to add to her itineraries. Some clients stay for multiple days, she explained, and they don’t want to spend every waking hour at wineries and breweries.
“A lot of people have asked me about the cheese tours,” said Maloney, owner of Red Wine Road Tours. Enthusiasts for premium cheese and wine are “totally the same demographic.”
Like the owners at Tara Firma Farms, some of the farmers branching into agritourism are relatively new to the land.
Late last year, Genevieve and Glen Ghilotti purchased the former Canvas Ranch west of Petaluma and renamed it Glenhill Farm and Gardens. The property will open for the Farm Trails weekend, allowing visitors to view newborn lambs, feed babydoll sheep and cashmere goats and, if the weather cooperates, pick strawberries and other produce.
Genevieve Ghilotti said the family plans to start a community supported agriculture, or CSA, farm produce subscription service. It also will open a seasonal farm stand on weekends.
The family also offers via Airbnb a farm stay at a small cottage that “sleeps two if they’re friendly,” and typically costs $125 a night, she said. Those who stay over can join in farm activities.
“They can help us plant and gather the produce,” she said. Those who do so are welcome to take some of the crops home with them.
South of Sebastopol, Bill MacElroy for three years has been selling lavender water and essential oil from plants grown on his 14-acre farm, Monte- Bellaria di California. He currently has 1,500 producing lavender plants, but last year he planted 32,000 more.
MacElroy, who recently gave a visitor a tour of his ranch, also raises olive trees and keeps bees. Lavender is good for bees, he said, and is able to thrive on his rural property in part because “the deer don’t eat it. The gophers don’t eat it.” As if on cue, five does and fawns appeared and began to graze the hill just above his young plantings.
Monte-Bellaria will be open for this month’s Farm Trails weekend, with chances for visitors to learn about the importance of bees and about how a lavender distiller extracts essential oil and produces lavender water.
MacElroy also wants to hold weekends in June and July where people reserve a time online and visit the farm to cut bunches of lavender and make their own bouquets. And he is considering a joint effort with some small area wineries to host dinners and private events on the patio of his Italianate-style home.
“It’s broadening their experiences with agriculture, which is what I believe people really want,” he said.
On his product brochures, MacElroy prominently displays the slogan “Made in Sonoma County California,” which was developed by county tourism, grape grower and vintner groups. County tourism officials have encouraged local food and product makers to use the slogan in order to send a united message to consumers.
“The Sonoma County cachet is incredibly important,” MacElroy said.
Some longtime farmers and ranchers also have hosted farm visits. Joe Pozzi, a Valley Ford cattle and sheep rancher, has hosted barbecues for a busload of Whole Foods shoppers, who earlier purchased his Pozzi Ranch lamb and later won a chance to visit his place.
“It’s bigger than the sheep,” he said of the visits. “It’s about the land.”
Pozzi, a former president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, agreed with many farm leaders that the visits are more than a way for urban dwellers to have a little fun in the great outdoors. The encounters provide farmers the chance to show why agriculture and food production still matter to the county and the nation.
“We need to make sure this land is productive,” Pozzi said.
Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer for the Sonoma County Tourism organization, said visitors are attracted to the county for its scenic beauty, but they also crave experiences that make good memories.
For farm events to work, he said, tour operators need to know two key items: “dates and rates.” But providing those details first requires a farm manager to think about how tours and private events would mesh with running an agriculture operation.
“The farmers have to figure these things out,” Zahner said.
Farmers have made considerable strides in the ways they connect with consumers since 1973 when Farm Trails began, said Carmen Snyder, the group’s executive director. At the start, she said, there were no local farmers markets or CSA programs.
The good news, Snyder said, is “we know that the public is increasingly interested in meeting the farmers.” One way is through its twice-a-year free farm weekends, for which reservations and maps are available at farmtrails.org.
Looking ahead, those at the February agritourism conference noted that state voters last fall approved Prop. 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use for adults. Eyler, the SSU professor, told the audience that approval will add a new element to the county’s agritourism efforts.
Visitors will come here “to engage with cannabis,” he said.
Snyder of Farm Trails suggested that local makers of marijuana-related products may follow the example of those who produce artisan food, wine and beer. The typical approach involves distinguishing a product by emphasizing its premium qualities. For marijuana, she said, that might mean touting organic outdoor grows.
“Maybe they’ll be calling it craft cannabis,” she said. “Who knows?”