California farmers and ranchers hosted more than 2.4 million agricultural tourists in 2008, according to early results from California’s first statewide economic survey of agritourism operators.

The survey’s preliminary findings suggest agritourism can indeed be a profitable supplement to a farm or ranch business. Agricultural tourism allows travelers a chance to visit working farms and ranches and can include experiences such as picking their own fruit, visiting a petting zoo, touring a vineyard, buying fresh produce or riding horses.

Small farms made up more than two-thirds of the farms that reported offering agritourism.

“We are excited to find that agritourism really seems to work for a lot of small farms,” said Penny Leff, statewide agritourism coordinator for the UC Small Farm Program. “Our results also show that agritourism is primarily local. More than 85 percent of reported visitors were from California.”

Most agritourism operators who responded to the survey reported their agritourism businesses generated some profit. A majority said they are planning to expand or diversify their agritourism offerings over the next five years. In addition, 22 percent of agritourism operators reported more than $100,000 in agritourism receipts for 2008.

The survey was conducted by a group of researchers from University of California Cooperative Extension and the UC Small Farm Program, with funding from the California Communities Program.

Researchers first mailed questionnaires in January to nearly 2,000 potential agritourism operators in every California county. Of the 554 responses to the survey, 332 respondents said they currently offer agritourism activities on their farms or ranches.

Further analysis will help measure the impacts of agritourism ventures on local economies. The survey will also help researchers identify major challenges faced by agritourism business owners, so that future University of California work can better address those needs.

"Farm operators, visitor bureaus, local government and the media have been asking about the value of agritourism as a profit-generating venue for sustaining family farms for the past decade,” said Ellie Rilla, community development advisor for UC Cooperative Extension Marin County and co-author of the 2005 handbook Agritourism and Nature Tourism in California. “This survey helps provide answers about revenue generation, permitting issues and training opportunities.”