Sonoma County farm leaders look to build agritourism
A pair of Canada geese glided over spring-green hills and landed on the rippling surface of the pond at Tara Firma Farms outside Petaluma.
New rancher Kris Eldrige-Squire stepped onto the earthen dam and looked over sunlit waters hemmed in by grassy knolls and a strip of thick reeds.
“You can see why our family fell in love with it,” he said as he took in the view.
A year ago, Eldridge-Squire and his family purchased the 238-acre property, long known for its grass-fed cattle and pigs, its subscription deliveries of meat and organic vegetables and its regular farm events for city folk. The new owners plan to retain all those components, including free weekend farm tours and paid events like the October Pumpkins on Pikes, where lit jack-o’-lanterns are placed at dusk on poles in a field outside the spacious event barn.
“We want it to be a destination,” said Eldridge-Squire, who lives on the ranch with wife, Oona Eldridge-Squire, their young son, Rowan, and father-in-law Mark Squire, a partner in Good Earth grocery stores in Marin County. “We want families to come out to enjoy our farm, our land.”
Sonoma County has long attracted visitors to its farms to cut a Christmas tree, pick a pumpkin or buy produce at a farm stand. But agriculture leaders, particularly the younger among them, today are exploring new business opportunities in an era when the county has garnered a reputation for premium food and wine and when so many visitors want to enjoy special experiences on their getaways here. It will also serve them, they say, to have urban dwellers better understand where their food comes from.
“They want an adventure,” said Stephanie Larson, the county director for the UC Cooperative Extension. “That’s the big thing now.”
Larson is exploring with local tourism officials how to get tour groups and members of visiting business conferences to take a day exploring the county’s farms and food producers. For example, she said, such tours might include the chance to milk a cow, make cheese and have a farm-fresh lunch and a glass of wine.
Visitors hoping to set foot in farm country this spring can do so at the annual Farm Trails weekend on April 29-30. More than 40 farms and food producers, including Tara Firma Farms, will open their operations for the “Blossoms, Bees & Barnyard Babies” weekend. The event’s visitors can pet critters, buy products and take tours that focus on the growing of crops and animals.
By most accounts, the county’s farm tourism efforts remain fledgling. Ag leaders maintain that paid food tours, farm stays and private events could help farmers, just as on-farm food production, farmers markets and subscription food box sales have added to the bottom line.
“The new farm model is going to involve all of the above,” said Lynda Hopkins, a Sonoma County supervisor and a partner with husband Emmett Hopkins in the relatively new Foggy River Farm southwest of Windsor.
The county has a long tradition of attracting visitors to take in the spring apple blossoms in west county and other farm experiences, Hopkins said. But new opportunities mean that today’s farmers “are going to have to think out of the box.”