Nearly two-thirds of California agritourism operators surveyed said they planned to expand or diversify their farm’s tourist business over the next five years, according to a survey in the April-June 2011 issue of the University of California’s California Agriculture journal.

“Agritourism is a vital strategy for diversifying and boosting profit for a small but significant number of California farms,” wrote lead author Ellie Rilla, community development advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Marin County. The research article, and the entire April-June 2011 issue, can be viewed and downloaded at http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.org.

Defining agritourism

Agritourism is any income-generating activity conducted on a working farm or ranch for the enjoyment and education of visitors. This includes on-farm produce stands, pumpkin patches, corn mazes, U-pick operations and special events such as weddings and conferences, as well as overnight stays, cooking classes, festivals, tours and lectures.

Rilla and colleagues developed and conducted the first economic survey of agritourism in California. They asked 332 farms with agritourism operations about their motivations, marketing strategies, revenue, employees and growth plans in 2008.

Three-quarters of those surveyed cited the need to increase profitability as a reason for entering into agritourism. Other reasons included “to market farm products” (62 percent) and “to provide an employment opportunity for family members” (22 percent).

Other findings included:

  • Nearly 30 percent of farms offering agritourism opportunities to the public earned $50,000 or more in additional revenue in 2008.
  • The total estimated number of visitors to the farms surveyed was 2.4 million in 2008.
  • One-third of those surveyed had at least one full-time employee working exclusively for their agritourism operation.
  • Word of mouth (97 percent), signs (81 percent) and websites (76 percent) were considered the most effective forms of promotion.

The April-June 2011 issue of California Agriculture also includes a news update on UC efforts to help develop agritourism on California farms. More than 300 people — including agritourism operators, farmers considering agritourism and public officials — attended a recent series of workshops hosted by the UC Small Farm Program in Merced, Ukia, Rio Vista and Red Bluff. Viewing agritourism as key to economic development, several rural counties are reworking their zoning, streamlining permitting rules and assigning staff to assist farmers in establishing new tourist operations.

“Regulatory issues and tools for marketing agritourism operations were identified as primary concerns” in the survey, Rilla wrote.