There’s more than one way to make money down on the farm. In many places across the country and around the world, farms and related businesses are turning themselves into first-rate tourist attractions.
NEW IDEAS: Agri-tourism proponent Dale Mammen (standing) makes some opening comments during last Thursday’s tourism summit at the Ag Service Center. Mammen, a member of Union County Tourism’s board of directors, chairs a committee looking into developing local agri-tourism attractions. Other panelists included Maurizio Valerio of Rural Development Initiatives (left), Karyn Bishoff of Stargazer Perennials and Ron Jensen, owner of Stange Manor Bed and Breakfast (right).The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
It looks as though that will happen, on a yet-to-be determined scale, right here at home, according to a plan advanced by Union County Tourism.During its tourism summit Thursday at the Ag Service Center in Island City, UCT, a publicly-funded, non-profit organization tasked with promoting tourism in the local area, said it plans a concerted effort to market the area’s agricultural attractions.
“I’d like to pull together what’s existing now and by next year have a map. We can add to it as time goes on,” said Janet Dodson, UCT’s executive director.
During two other tourism summits in 2007, participants identified agri-tourism and bicycle tourism as having the best fit and potential for growth in Union County.
A committee of business people and cycling fans began meeting last winter, with the goal of identifying and promoting mountain biking trails and road biking routes.
The first project was to publish a map in time to distribute to Cycle Oregon participants this fall. A next step is to mark bike routes with signs.
Another committee has been studying the agri-tourism option. Thursday’s summit, presided over by committee chair Dale Mammen, featured a panel discussion about the market and some of the challenges in building an agri-tourism business.
Mammen and others on the panel noted there are many attractions and potential attractions already in place in Union County.
Some of those include the Stargazer Perennials nursery in Summerville, Gilstrap Brothers Winery in Cove, Old Rose’s Mercantile on Foothill Road in La Grande, an iris farm on Mount Glen Road and a garlic vendor on Fruitdale Lane.
The Farmer’s Market held at Max Square in La Grande during the summer and fall is a key attraction, Mammen, owner of Mammen and Mammen and Associates and the Rendezvous RV Park, said.
“The market is extremely important to tourism in our valley,” he said.
Maurizio Valerio, community development coordinator for the non-profit group Rural Development Initiatives, said the already-existing businesses are a strength to build upon.
“I think the first step is to take an inventory of what we have. Then we can take an immense second and third step,” he said.
Stargazer Perennials owner Karyn Bishoff related some of her experiences in transforming her Summerville farm into an agri-tourism attraction.
She said she has increased foot traffic and profits. She plans to add some other visitor-friendly attractions in the future, including a botanical walk and an educational feature about birds.
But at the same time, Bishoff cautioned that agri-tourism might not be for everybody.
“You have to be really prepared to want to deal with the public and open up your farm to them,” she said.
Scott Hartel of the Union County Planning Department noted that land use conflicts can and sometimes do arise in the agri-tourism setting.
He said people thinking of creating an attraction should be sure to check state and local rules and regulations concerning dwellings, farm stands, parking facilities, signage and more.
“Whatever your business is, it should be specific to your property,” he said. “Just check in with us to make sure you can do it.”
Hartel said his department is standing by to help. He said he will be happy to try and answer land use questions.
Hartel also had a suggestion. He said many of the old vacant farm houses in the Grande Ronde Valley could be pressed into use as lodging facilities.
“When you see houses that aren’t being used anymore, talk to the owners about putting them to use,” he said.
Another speaker offering advice was Terry Hughes of Farmer’s Insurance. He urged that those going into agri-tourism make sure they have adequate insurance coverage.
“Don’t go with the cheap policy,” he said. “You’re not seeing $100,000 claims anymore. If you’ve got $3 million to $4 million, they’re going to go for your assets,” he said.
He cautioned that lawsuits can come from many different directions. As an example, he said people with allergies to eggs or peanut butter have sued businesses who served those items to guests.
Hughes also recommended that businesses make sure they meet state regulations concerning employees.
“Call the Bureau of Labor and Industries and make sure you are in compliance,” he said.
Suggestions from the audience included a map for a tour of century farms, marketing and promotion of fruit orchards, linking of Web sites, and more.
Alice Trindle, executive director of the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association and a concessionaire at the Anthony Creek elk feeding station near North Powder, said she is pleased with the effort to develop agri-tourism.
“It is an already existing market. It is a marketing niche that’s been proven domestically and nationally,” she said.
Dodson said her organization will continue to inventory possible attractions for inclusion in a agri-tour map that will be out by next summer.