In decades gone by, agritourism — we hadn’t coined the word yet — was pretty much confined to a second- or third-grade class taking a field to a farm. Or, it might have been a summer family visit to a relative’s farm or ranch. A traditional “dude ranch” would be considered agritourism. Somewhere, on the way to the 21st century, the old rules changed, and farmers and ranchers began doing “the fruit stand,” version 2000.
Nowadays, a good many savvy farmers and ranchers make tourism part of their management/marketing mix. In fact, you could even get a graduate certificate in agritourism management from Colorado State University. And, you can do it, of course, online.
Tourism — people visiting interesting and exotic places — is all that keeps some formerly thriving and robust towns, cities and even countries economically viable. Though American agriculture is by far completely the opposite of a ghost town, it is highly competitive, really hard work, and often likened to herding cats. In that light, small agriculture needs to continue to exercise all of its product and marketing options. Enter agritourism.
Colorado has about 1,056 farms and ranches that are participating, in some way, in agritourism. There are 160 wineries statewide. There are some dude and trophy hunting ranches. In all, agritourism adds about $64 million to the state’s economy. That begs the question, what exactly is agritourism?
According to Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Wendy Lee White, the definition includes a number of categories. Those are, farms, farm markets, petting farms, education, dude ranches, outdoor recreation, wineries, lodging, u-pick farms, wildlife, food and beverage service, and even weddings. These are businesses that use their agriculture base to attract, entertain and market to tourists.
In Montrose County, there are a number of agritourist attractions, not the least of which are the Montrose and Ridgway Farmers markets. The Prock Elk Ranch on Kinikin road east of Montrose is another ag tourist attraction. The Covered Bridge Ranch south of Montrose specializes in autumn activities with a pick-your-own pumpkin patch and rides.
Delta County, in particular the North Fork Valley, has plenty of agritourism enterprises, including Orchard Valley Farm and The Living Farm, with its extension, the Living Farm Cafe in downtown Paonia. There are breweries, like the Paonia United Brewing Company, that get counted as attractions when you consider their inclusion of locally grown hops and grain. The same goes for Montrose County’s breweries like Horsefly, Two Rascals, Colorado Boy and the Storm King Distillery.
Pick it your own self
Folks like Morgan Foote and her friends found their way from Denver to the Orchard Valley Farm, a 120-acre complex on the banks of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. The farm also has not one, but two, wineries which attracted the Denver ladies. They have Black Bridge Winery and the West Elks Wineries. Incidentally, if you are not topo-oriented to the North Fork Valley, any name that contains West Elk(s) refers to the West Elk Mountains south and east of the valley (as opposed to a Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks club).
“I tried the Riesling and loved it,” Foote declared, hugging the Riesling bottle and two other Black Bridge creations. Black Bridge is an award winner when it comes to its Pinot Noir vint. The business is actually named for a black iron truss bridge that crosses the river near the property.
Meanwhile, out in the fields and orchards, city folks, and some not so city visitors, are busy picking their own veggies and fruits. The U-pick crowd has free reign during summer and early fall to wander and pick. There also is a picnic and dog park next to the river and a well stocked store with everything from designer pasta to their very famous and scrumptious 18-year old balsamic vinegar.
Besides everything from tomatoes to peaches to beef cattle, the Orchard Valley operation is all about promoting their crops and products and the North Fork Valley. No wonder, owner Lee Bradley came to the farm well armed in 1991. He has a bachelor’s degree in ag education and a master’s in agriculture marketing and management from CSU — the same folks who do the ag tourist school. Lee and his wife Kathy, and now, their son Ryan run the farm, the stores and the wineries.
The super gardeners
Meanwhile, the Gillespie family has carved itself a unique niche in the Paonia market. They are the force behind The Living Farm and The Living Farm Cafe and Inn. It is truly a farm-to-table operation. Mom and Dad, Lynn and Tom Gillespie, son Ben, and daughter Jenny run the “high performance” farm while son and chef Michael take care of business at the Cafe and Inn in Paonia.
The cafe is a full-service restaurant where Chef Michael presents a creative, well-tuned, and ambitious menu. They do breakfast, lunch and dinner. The inn is a five-room enterprise. The rooms are affordable, bright, and cheery.
The Gillespies are not exactly Johnny-come-lately folks in Paonia. Great grandpa George, his wife Margaret and seven youngsters moved to the North Fork Valley in 1938. Jim Gillespie followed his father, working the farm until Tom and Lynn took over. Their son Ben is a fourth generation farmer.
Nowadays, Lynn and Tom operate the farm as year-round producer of food and fiber, supplier to The Living Farm Cafe, and as an educational center.
“We are in the process of building classroom to teach onsite workshops,” says Lynn. “That program will start in November.”
The curriculum will be hands-on, high-performance Farming. Presently, about 8,200 students study online. The online presence is a very large body of work. Lynn develops most of the courses and Tom is the media producer, creating quality instructional videos and a well developed web site.
Plenty of help
For an ag business to add tourism to their repertoire, there is plenty of assistance available from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and other operators. For example, Wendy White (quoted above) spends a lot of her time doing educational presentations around the state aimed at helping folks sort out the complexities and get started. Her schedule is found on the department’s website at https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/agmarkets/agritourism-resources.
There is an trade association for folks in agritourism. The web address is www.coloradoagritourism.org.
If you are a tourist, the department provides lists of farmers markets and other activities which can be found at colorado.gov.