Selling the farm
Tourists in Butte County? Bring ’em on, say local farmers
Tour buses filled with camera- toting families. Kids playing on farm equipment. Walking tours through working orchards, farms and vineyards. Quaint farm produce stands and gourmet dinners made with locally grown produce.
Sound like a trip to the Napa Valley? Maybe, but something similar may be on its way to Butte County.
A group of local farmers, along with the Butte County Farm Bureau, are working to beef up—rather, start up—what could be a sleeping economic giant for Butte County: agricultural tourism. This idea, to market the area to deep-pocketed tourists in Southern California and the Bay Area, has simmered for years, says Farm Bureau President Tod Kimmelshue, but only recently has it started to “come to a boil.”
Soon, Kimmelshue continues, little Butte County, with its thousands of acres of farm land, miles of scenic rural highways, embryonic winery industry and increasingly sophisticated accommodations, could be looking at a new renaissance as a mecca for those tired-out city folks looking for a little fun down on the farm.
Here’s how Keith Book imagines it: a little farm produce stand, open year-round, with locally grown produce and crafts. An educational program for school kids to learn about the ag industry and the environmental care of a working farm. Organized weekend tours and a commercial kitchen producing meals for tourists.
His Book Family Farm, located south of Chico on Highway 99, certainly has enough room for everything he envisions. There’s ample parking for tour buses, and, given his convenient freeway location, it would be perfect as a home base for out-of-towners starting a daylong tour of Butte County. That’s what he’s aiming for, once the tour buses start rolling in.
Book Family Farm, with its tidy clapboard farmhouses, grazing horses and roaming Labradors, chickens and goats, is also about as picturesque as it gets. It would be a great place to learn about farming, Book said hopefully.
The Book family has been involved, at least to some degree, in local ag-tourism since 1985, when its members started putting on the popular annual Book Family Harvest Festival. The festival has grown over the years and now draws thousands of area residents to the property to pick out a pumpkin (grown on the spot), listen to music, eat, pet and feed farm animals, and browse through a scarecrow contest.
Book says he realized just how successful promoting the 247-acre property could be in the early 1990s, when a friend asked him to host a group of Japanese farmers who wanted to tour a typical American farm. Since then, his family has hosted farmers interested in the American way of farming from as far away as Russia, he said.
“That really got the ball rolling,” he says. “I started realizing that if we could get people out here for the pure entertainment of it, they spend their entertainment dollar a lot easier and quicker than they do their food dollar.”
That realization, combined with decreasing profits from his crops, led Book to conclude that he had to sell not just his product (mainly pumpkins), but also the whole farming life, to really make a living on the farm.
“I think there’s a real nostalgia out there for farming and the farming life,” Book explains. “Farmers can grow anything, but we haven’t been able market it. That’s been our downfall. We don’t know how to market ourselves, and now we’re learning how to do that with our land.”
Marketing is key, the Farm Bureau’s Kimmelshue says.
“We have to get the word out to people who might be interested in coming to see what we have here,” he explains. “We have a great place to come; we just have to let people know it’s here.”
He hopes to expand on the smallish spring almond blossom and bird tours that are currently offered to include overnight farm stays and swanky meals for out-of-towners. Right now, there’s not much of an organized infrastructure to offer such accommodations, and that’s what Kimmelshue has been working toward lately.
“This has been kind of an informal effort for years now,” Kimmelshue says. “But lately it’s just starting to bubble.”
What’s changed is a variety of things. Several vintners of Butte County’s burgeoning winery industry (there are now four boutique wineries here) have realized that they could be sitting on a Napa or Amador County-like gold mine; crop prices are down, leading farmers to look for alternative ways to diversify their incomes; and the county’s economic powers-that-be have made ag-tourism a new priority.
Debra Lucero Austin, director of Butte County’s Cultural Tourism Project, says she realized just how marketable the area’s ag industry is when she attended the Farm City Celebration this fall. She’d been successfully promoting the county’s thriving arts community to tourists for months, and is now starting to do the same for ag-tourism.
Last year, she sent out 35,000 newspaper inserts to Bay Area residents advertising the Open Studios Tour, and, more recently, the same newspaper subscribers received inserts for the upcoming Snow Goose Festival.
The Open Studios Tour insert brought 30 percent more people to the event than attended the year before, Austin reports. Next fall, she plans to do the same for the Farm City Celebration.
“We’re not looking to do anything new,” she said. “Everything we need is right here. We’re just finding new ways to market it.”
In a very real way, Lou Cecchi is betting that tourists will find Butte County irresistible. He just opened a new winery and vineyard in Oroville, complete with a sparkling new tasting room (which opens in April) and seven acres of tidy grape vines in the foothills.
When it’s operating at full capacity, Cecchi Winery will produce 3,000 cases of wine a year. That’s hardly enough to compete with wine giants in Napa County, but it’s enough to draw discriminating wine tasters from the Bay Area and Southern California to Butte County, Cecchi hopes.
He’s already had queries from interested tourists from as far away as Santa Barbara asking when they can come to the new tasting room. The winery is advertised now only on the Internet, but Cecchi hopes that the burgeoning ag-tourism scene here will bring even more people to him.
“We just have so much here for people to see and do," Cecchi said. "We have a great climate for growing, Lake Oroville, the casinos. Things are happening now that weren’t happening before for this area."