Reconnecting to the Land
April 26th, 2017 by Lori Russell

Mount Hood rises in the background as workers pick pears in the Hood River Valley.
Photo by Adam Lapierre

Michele and Dan Spatz have been visiting the Hood River County Fruit Loop since their daughters were old enough to pick pumpkins from a patch.

The couple from The Dalles, Oregon, has shopped at area farmers markets and fruit stands, celebrated the pairing of local food and wine at vineyard dinners and even bought yarn at an alpaca farm.

They are among a growing number of Americans traveling to rural landscapes and activities as an alternative to the country’s more expected tourist hot spots.

According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, the number of farms providing agritourism—a combination of agriculture and tourism—and related recreational services increased 42 percent from 23,350 to 33,161 between 2007 and 2012.

Organized in 1992, the Hood River County Fruit Loop promotes agricultural diversity to ensure preservation of the area’s rich agricultural heritage. The collection of farms, orchards, vineyards, wineries and other agricultural businesses lines a scenic 35-mile loop.

Visitors can pick apples, pears and other fruit; tour farms ranging from berries or lavender to chestnuts or alpacas; sip a glass of locally made wine or cider; and bring home fresh produce and products.

Theresa Draper, who runs Draper Girls Country Farm with her three daughters, says she has seen a steady increase in customers at her u-pick orchard and farm stand since the 1990s, with more families with young children visiting in the past five years.

Many who come to this stop on the Loop to pick the more than 80 varieties of apples, pears, cherries and other fruit stay to picnic in the garden, enjoy a glass of apple cider from the Drapers’ licensed mill, feed the animals, and soak up the sights and sounds of farm life.

“I love it,” says Theresa, who still maintains the year-round, self-service fruit stand that her parents began in the 1960s. “I have met so many people from all over the world. Last summer, we had a family from Saudi Arabia stay at the home we rent on the farm.”

Connecting Urban to Rural
Alexa Carey of Travel Oregon says the Hood River Fruit Loop is the best example of agritourism collaboration in the state.

“It has grown from a small number of fruit farms to a destination,” she says.
More than half of Oregon’s tourists participate in some type of culinary experience—whether it is a farm, wine tour or farmers market, says Alexa.

“Agritourism has the potential to help connect people in urban areas to farms and food, and to keep these working landscapes alive,” Alexa says. “In urban areas, there is interest in local food, local producers and organic practices.

“For kids, there is a real disconnect from where their food comes from. Getting out to a farm for these experiences is fun, it is educational and it really helps kids put things together to see this is where their tomatoes come from.”

In regions of the U.S. with deep agricultural roots, agritourism has been around for generations, says Martha Glass, founder of the National Agritourism Professionals Association.

“In the late ’50s to early ’60s, that meant picking out a pumpkin at a pumpkin patch or cutting down a Christmas tree at a u-pick site,” Martha says. “Visitors to a peach or apple orchard took a bucket, picked and went home. During their visit, they hoped to see some machinery or buildings that looked like what they had on a farm where they grew up.”

By the early 2000s, nostalgia for the family farm experience became a driving force for many active, healthy grandparents who brought their grandchildren.

“That generation remembered going to grandma’s farm for a family reunion,” says Martha. “They wanted to take their children and grandchildren to show them where their food came from and what it was like to live on the farm.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, patriotism and nostalgia swelled across the country.

“We cared very much about our farms, and we realized that we were in danger of losing that way of life,” Martha says.

Expanding the Experience
From animals to crops, farmers realized they had something city people wanted to see.

Christmas tree farms expanded to include cut trees and a farm store with ornaments. The farm produce stand on the side of the road became an enclosed store with a front porch and rocking chair. Little country towns that surround these farms saw visitors coming into downtown to eat at local restaurants and buy gas.

According to Martha, about 80 percent of agritourism farms in the U.S. today have some type of activity—from hayrides to harvest festivals, u-pick produce to vineyard tours, horses to hens.

Farm-to-fork—also called farm-to-table dinners—feature meals with fresh, local ingredients, often in the settings where they are grown. Diners can tour a farm and talk with the people who made the products and prepared their meal.

Farm weddings are also popular. From rustic to lavish, outdoor or under cover, there are plenty of options for couples looking to get married with their boots on.

For those looking to enjoy the rural lifestyle for more than a few hours, farm stays provide creative and unique lodging. Accommodations range from a room in a farmer’s home or converted farm building to a guest house or campsite.

Some hosts welcome help with chores or offer classes in cooking, photography or cheese making.

Dude ranches offer another option for individuals and families looking to experience the rural lifestyle. At a working dude ranch, daily chores and activities—including cattle and horse drives—are determined by the needs of the livestock.

Horseback riding and other outdoor activities are the focus at dude ranches, while larger resort dude ranches offer diverse activities and facilities in addition to riding.

For 60 years, the Smith family has welcomed guests to the Cottonwood Ranch in Wells, Nevada, for pack trips and horse and cattle drives. The working horse and cattle ranch draws visitors from around the world who come to hike, fish, mountain bike or just relax and breathe the fresh air.

Set in Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness, The Diamond D Ranch offers an all-inclusive traditional ranch stay with trail rides and multiday pack trips as well as guided fly fishing, hunting, hiking and family activities.

At the Triangle T Historic Guest Ranch in Dragoon, Arizona, 60 miles southeast of Tucson, guests can saddle up for an hour or a day on a desert trail. With more than 160 acres ranging from rolling grass-covered hills to rugged terrain, there is something for every level of rider. Afterward, guests can relax in the swimming pool or hot tub before heading to The Rock Saloon and Grill for dinner.

Capitalizing on Novelty
Alaska welcomes more than 1 million visitors a year. Margaret Adsit created Alaska Farm Tours to give travelers an intimate glimpse of the lives and livelihoods of farmers and ranchers in the Matanuska Valley north of Anchorage.

Many of those who work this land are descendants of early homesteaders who came in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal resettlement plan.

“People are producing copious amounts of food,” says Margaret. “We have one 6-acre farm that can produce food for about 600 people in the summer.”

With a growing season just topping 100 days and sunshine up to 20 hours a day, innovation is the name of the game for those who work the soil with limited resources to produce a variety of cold-weather crops, including potatoes, cabbages, lettuce and carrots.

Tours begin with an introduction to Alaska plants at the Palmer Grow program and the gardens of the Palmer Art Museum and Historical Center, followed by visits to three agricultural operations. At a local farm, participants have a catered lunch highlighting Alaska products.

Alan Finifrock lived in Alaska for two decades before moving to Minnesota. Now he teaches travel classes and leads tours to his former home. Many of those on his trips are from rural communities who caught the travel bug after watching TV reality shows set in Alaska.

When he brought a group to Alaska last year, Alan made sure Alaska Farm Tours was on the itinerary. He has a return visit planned this summer.

“Agriculture is so much different in Alaska,” he says. “It is a novelty topic for people from the Lower 48. They enjoy the comparison and contrast with Minnesota.”

Sharing the Life
Across the U.S., agritourism activities continue to grow and expand to meet the interests and curiosities of visitors, opening the barn door and pasture gate to the ultimate field trip.

The Hood River County Fruit Loop continues to be a popular day trip for the Spatzes when entertaining family from out of state—including their now adult daughters.

“Much of my family lives in big cities and are removed from the primary aspect of working the land and benefiting from its harvest,” says Michele Spatz.

She and her guests appreciate the friendliness of the business owners and staff, and their in-depth knowledge of their products.

“They are so proud of what they have accomplished and will share the secrets of their success,” Michele says.