Balancing farms, tourist sites poses local challenge


Issue Date: October 5, 2016
By Ching Lee
Farm animals are a popular attraction at agritourism destinations, which provide farmers a new venue to market their crops and bring in additional income.
Photo/Ching Lee

The rise of the farm-to-fork movement has been accompanied by the growing popularity of agritourism, as more landowners open their ranches to people who want to experience the bucolic views of the countryside. But the proliferation of event centers, wedding venues and bed-and-breakfast inns on agricultural land has also increased tensions between those landowners and surrounding farms that see their normal activities impacted by nearby events.

Chris Scheuring, an environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the problem has less to do with agritourism and more to do with nonagricultural uses in rural areas that are incompatible with agriculture and interfere with farmers' ability to farm.

Agritourism operations are more appropriate, he said, when what they do is "ancillary to existing agricultural operations, rather than just somebody coming in and plopping down a big wedding center that really isn't agriculture and calling it that."

Another concern, Scheuring said, is that some counties may be leaning too heavily in favor of intensification of land use in agricultural zones, in part because they appreciate the revenue and taxes the businesses generate.

He cited as an example a bed-and-breakfast and event center in Winters that was recently granted a use permit by the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. The project drew opposition from area farms because it would bring increased traffic to the area's narrow country road and disrupt farming activities such as harvest, pesticide applications and crop transport. Due to a procedural error, another hearing on the project will be held next week.

The purpose of that project, Scheuring said, is not to support agriculture on that parcel but rather to be a venue for weddings out in farmland.

"It's a question of scope, magnitude and intensity of impact—and what does it do to the surrounding agricultural fabric?" he said.

Location also matters, he added, citing other agritourism destinations, such as Casa de Fruta in San Benito County, that have made it work without harming area farms. Casa de Fruta runs a restaurant, farm stand, gift shop and entertainment attractions.

"We're off (Highway) 152, so we're not impacting the rural backroads of counties and people who aren't already used to having weekend traffic," said Joe Zanger, who operates Casa de Fruta. "As far as neighbors, we have so few and we're fortunate, as we're pretty isolated."

For many farmers, agritourism represents a way to bring in additional income while creating a new venue to market their crops. Scheuring said Farm Bureau supports those projects if they can be done without displacing agriculture and if they uphold the tenets of the California Farmland Conservation Act, or the Williamson Act, which gives farmers tax incentives to keep their land in agricultural production.

Penny Leff, agritourism coordinator for the University of California Small Farm Program, which holds workshops for landowners who want to get into agritourism, said people see agritourism from different points of view. She noted that many people who come to her workshops are first-time farmers who see agritourism as a component of the farming operation they are starting; some haven't even bought land yet.

What she stresses in her workshops, she said, is the importance of neighbors and how landowners "need to work out with your neighbors whatever you want to do."

"A lot of times, people can work things out. I know that sometimes you just can't," Leff said.

George Kapor, who operates Pageo Lavender Farm in Turlock with his wife Patty, said when he first started to open his farm to weddings and events, there were concerns from neighboring farms. But after going through a lengthy regulatory planning process and subsequently passing muster with the California Environmental Quality Act, he received his use permit with no objections from neighbors, with whom he said he has a good relationship. A number of them, he noted, have been to his events. He's also given them a schedule of his events, noting that they "go out of their way" to work around them.

"And I really appreciate that, because I know they have the right to farm," he said.

With its burgeoning wine sector, San Joaquin County has seen its share of rural venues hosting weddings, concerts and other events. Some of those venues call themselves wineries but have never produced any grapes or wine, and some also did not have permits to host events, said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation.

He said it's taken time for the county board of supervisors to understand that "there's a place for everything." If a venue is in a commercial zone and has amenities such as big streets and roadways and public services such as a sewer, then it makes more sense, he noted. But if a property is on a Williamson Act contract, he added, it should be "in the production of food, not the production of events."

Wayne Zipser, executive director of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, said his region has grappled with similar issues regarding agritourism. In 2008, the county rejected a public events and outdoor entertainment ordinance after seeing a surge of wedding venues operating on farmland without permits, and some that were permitted but were on land with a Williamson Act contract. Recently, the county decided to reconsider its zoning ordinance to allow wedding venues in agricultural areas if a use permit is granted for the business. The planning commission approved the proposal, which will go before the county board of supervisors in November.

Zipser noted the close relationship the county Farm Bureau has with planners and said he trusts they will evaluate each project on a case-by-case basis while seeking input from agriculture and neighbors.

"I guess we're kind of opening the door for allowing some of this out in ag areas and it's a little bit scary, but I trust the county and I hope that they adhere to these very stringent rules to not allow these wedding venues to pop up everywhere," he said.

In Napa County, which has a long tradition of agritourism, the term has a whole different meaning, said Jesse Ramer, interim executive director of the Napa County Farm Bureau. Because of the success of the wine business and the marketing of Napa as a destination, he said, people flock to the region—but they see themselves as tourists, not agritourists.

"What they need to realize is that it's good old-fashioned agriculture—the growing of grapes—that is providing the idyllic scenery and the acclaimed wine," he said.

Ramer also noted that the proliferation of marketing events, tours and tastings at wineries has "rightfully brought more scrutiny on new projects."

Leff said some counties do worry about opening the floodgates to non-farm uses such as event centers on farmland, with concerns that they would drive up land values, affect wildlife habitat and change the overall rural landscape.

"I think there's a fear in other counties like Yolo that they don't want to be like Napa," she said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.