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Travel News

Tourism news: Washington states turns agricultural tourism into a fine art

Written by editor

Farms and orchards that once simply supplied jobs and food have become entertainment and educational outlets for tourists interested in knowing where and how food is made.

Farms and orchards that once simply supplied jobs and food have become entertainment and educational outlets for tourists interested in knowing where and how food is made. In an area with natural beauty, nice weather, and a long history of agriculture, some hope the farm will bring tourists to North Central Washington (NCW).

For Chuck and Sharon Podlich, owners of Orondo Cider Works and more than 200 acres of orchards in the Orondo area, tourist dollars bring a little more stability to traditional orchard work. Instead of relying on weather or market conditions to make a living, their store, which offers orchard and cider-pressing tours, can make up for orchard losses.

In Europe, where it is popular, farm tourism has been subsidized by the government as a way to keep small farms viable. Though the government doesn’t subsidize it here, it’s not an entirely new concept to NCW.

Agricultural tourism includes visits to farms, production facilities, farm stands, wineries, and vineyards; picking fruit and vegetables at farms and orchards; and staying at farms and other interactive food-production venues.

The Cascade Foothills Farmland Association has been promoting agricultural tourism in North Central Washington for nine years and offers a free agricultural tourism driving map of North Central Washington annually. The 150,000 copies of the map are distributed across the state at tourism kiosks, tourist sites, and business. The map includes short descriptions of fruit stands, wineries, and other agriculture – and tourism-related businesses which are also members of the association. Since its inception in 2001, the association has grown to 175 members.

Hank Manriquez, the association’s president, said the idea for it began after Bill Taylor, then-director of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, asked board members how to bring more tourists to the area.

Manriquez, who was a board member at the time, spearheaded the exploration of tourism centered around NCW’s traditional focus and contacted agricultural tourism researchers at University of California at Davis, got in touch with the Washington State Department of Commerce, and met with local orchardists.

“There was no ag tourism we could find in the state of Washington anywhere,” Manriquez said of the association’s beginning in 2001. “… We started it to show how we can keep these guys in business – growers – and bring a whole new growth to economy.”

Manriquez said money from farm and winery-based tourism has grown to US$45 million to US$50 million per year from almost nothing in 2001. He attributes the increase mainly to the wine industry. “You’re selling bottles of wine anywhere from US$15 to US$50. That’s more dollar volume compared to a bag of apples at three or five bucks.”

“More people are aware of our fresh fruit in the area,” he added, attributing the awareness to promotions including his association’s driving map. “They go from fruit stand to fruit stand to winery. … The wine industry has brought everything together for the agriculture industry (here).”

The Washington State Department of Agriculture and Washington State Tourism are also in on the creation of more agriculture- and food-centered tourism. Patrice Barrentine, the direct marketing coordinator for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, and Michelle Campbell of Washington State Tourism, spearheaded a conference in March in Leavenworth, which was aimed at developing agricultural tourism further in NCW.

The objective of culinary and agricultural tourism is to keep farmers farming while increasing sales, said Barrentine during the conference. Farmers weren’t the only ones interested in developing tourism in the farming sector. Chefs, innkeepers, and food producers attended the conference to find out how to attract more tourists to NCW.

The conference focused on the creation of farm-visit and food-focused itineraries and the promotion of the area as a destination for those who want to get closer to their food.

In June, the Washington State Tourism Office released “Savor Washington” itineraries for Leavenworth and the Lake Chelan area that focus on farm visits and food production and commerce. The itineraries – which are among nine itineraries focusing on food across the state – are the result of the two-day March conference.

Local business owners, tourism and event industry promoters, and elected officials questioned in a recent analysis of how to best use Wenatchee’s hotel/motel room tax identified agricultural tourism as the second highest priority, after conventions. Mission Ridge Ski and Board Resort came in third. The study, conducted by E.D. Hovee & Company of Vancouver was released March 1.

“We started with a concept of making cider and donuts,” said Sharon Podlich of Orondo Cider Works, “a by-product of what was – and still is – our orchard, the main source of the business.”

Podlich and her husband, Chuck Podlich, began the business in 2003 and manage or own about 220 acres of apple, pear, and cherry orchards.

“People that come to see it, they are fascinated to learn about agriculture, a lot of them. One of our best things is on Saturday morning, when we’re pressing, is to let Chuck be the one describing the process. They’ll get him going on some other aspect about growing apples. The little questions they have, people don’t understand that there’s a great deal of science behind farming. … One of our goals was to provide some education about agriculture. You don’t need to give everyone a class; just give them one piece at a time.”

In addition to orchard tours, on Saturday mornings during the summer, demonstrations of making cider are shown at the store. Also, visitors can see how the apple cider donuts are made.

Sharon Podlich said the business has been growing steadily since it began, with about twice as much business as the first couple of years. Last year, the store made about 81,000 transactions averaging about US$8 per sale.

“These (holiday) weekends are very big,” said Podlich. “But what we’ve noticed over time is where we grow is the rest of the weekends.”

She added that off-season traffic has grown as well. “I think there’s more focus on this whole area on the shoulder seasons and winter tourism. And I know Chelan has more focus on increasing winter tourist attraction.”

With the store holding its own, Podlich said they’re less concerned about problems that could result from something going wrong in the orchard. “It’s putting your eggs in a little different basket,” she explained.

During summer weekends, the Orondo Cider Works offers fruit bin “train” rides (rides in modified fruit bins pulled by a tractor) through the adjacent orchard.

Mike Smallwood began selling fruit out of the back of a pickup in the 1970s. “As time and money allowed, he started the structure he sold fruit out of during the summer,” said his wife, Lynn Smallwood, of their fruit stand.

“We were needing year-round money instead of just the orchard,” she explained. To diversify, the Smallwoods tried to sell antiques. “Looking at the books, the antiques weren’t paying the bills.” Lynn phased out the antiques and began selling specialty foods. “About that time, we got involved in ag-tourism groups, went to conferences and shops and that’s when we started coming up with resources and ideas.”

The store, Smallwood’s Harvest, has become a destination for families looking for a farm-like experience. The Smallwood’s business offers more than the average fruit stand, with a petting zoo of farm animals, a store filled with jams and wine, events including an annual Easter egg hunt, children’s toys, a picnic area, and a large parking lot.

Now, the business does so well, they lease out the orchard as they have for seven years. “It’s given us more time to focus on doing our business.”

Lynn said that every year, they try to pick up a new idea. “You can do too much,” she added. “We’ve been focusing on dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s and improving our property rather than expanding.”

Marcia Green, who runs Cashmere Cider Mill and Apple Country Tours & Events, said in 1996 she started researching agricultural tourism and the concept’s success in Europe. A year later, she started her agricultural education and tourism venture, Apple Country Tours & Events.

The business focuses on providing a connection between grower and consumer by setting up tours throughout NCW that focus on the region’s agriculture. Among offerings are orchard and vineyard tours, fruit-picking excursions, dinners and other agriculture-related tourist activities.

“We are currently on the tip of the iceberg,” wrote Marcia Green via email about agricultural tourism. “Sustainable agriculture, CSA programs, local food security, all these contribute to public interest to explore the source of their food.”

The Cashmere Cider Mill, which opened its tasting room in 2007, offers tours of the how they make cider and the equipment they use. The business also offers cider tastings and live, outdoor music in the summer.

Many, if not all of NCW’s wineries offer tasting rooms and frequently invite the public to tour vineyards and steps along the wine-making process, including grape crushing and wine bottling.

The focus of the annual Lake Chelan Crush wine festival each fall is to show those interested in wine how it is made and introduce them to those who make the wine. “I think people enjoy tasting the wines, talking to the winemakers, sometimes seeing the production of the wines,” said Jan Lutz, executive director, of Wenatchee Wine Country, a NCW wine-promotion organization. “Like when they do spring barrel tasting, they can see the difference between the young wine (and the aged.) In the fall they do crush events, where people can have fun and actually stomp the grapes, tasting, and being in the vineyards and seeing how the soils and different elevations contribute to the wines that are produced.”

“Every tourist has their own definition about what they want to experience,” said Lutz. “We try to offer different things to different tourists.”

Opportunities to see wine production in action isn’t limited to festivals. “I’m getting phone calls from people that want to come to Wenatchee and do more wine tours,” said Lutz. “They don’t want to go to the big wineries in the Tri-Cities where you can’t meet the winemaker, they want to go to the boutique wineries and crowd people into a small tasting room. You learn more about the passion of the winemakers by talking to the winemakers themselves. People get more out of the experience by having the opportunity to talk to the winemaker.”

Karen Wade of Fielding Hills Winery in East Wenatchee said people volunteer to bottle wine, just so they can be part of the process. At Icicle Ridge Winery, tours of the nearby vineyards, live music and winemaker’s dinners are offered throughout the year.