Social media, diversification aid agritourism farms


Issue Date: November 1, 2017
By Christine Souza
Apple Hill farm co-owner Christa Campbell of Rainbow Orchards in Camino, left, talks to customer Barbara Stevenson of Modesto about the farm’s assortment of apple varieties. To remain profitable at other times of the year, the farm also grows berries and promotes its products, including gourmet jams and jellies, at Bay Area farmers markets.
Photo/Christine Souza
Grower Evelyn Abel of Abel’s Apple Acres, left, talks to grandson Tyler Ames, who is making candied apples before the next rush of customers at Apple Hill.
Photo/Christine Souza
10-month-old Dallas Eilers, daughter of Jacob and Amber Eilers of Woodland, samples an apple fritter at High Hill Ranch.
Photo/Christine Souza

Maintaining traditions, while incorporating social media platforms to reach customers, form the keys to success for agritourism businesses.

In the foothills east of Sacramento, Apple Hill—one of the state's best-known agritourism destinations—is bustling with activity, as people arrive to experience a day in the country by sampling just-picked apples, pastries, hard apple cider and more.

Jeanette Whiteman of Cameron Park, who stopped at Abel's Apple Acres near Placerville, said, "I'm here to see the fall colors and enjoy the nice weather, but I'm also getting some apple cider donuts. We come here every year, and sometimes more than once."

Abel's Apple Acres, a family farm that features fresh-baked apple goods, a candy counter, gifts and more, belongs to a growers' association that promotes the region's farms and publishes a farm trail map that also lists u-pick operations and wineries.

"Apple Hill Growers Association does a good job advertising, and once people visit, it becomes a tradition and they return every year," Evelyn Abel said. "You can hardly move, we get so busy. It's an exciting way to make a living."

In addition to its farm-trail map, the Apple Hill Growers Association developed "The Official Apple Hill Growers App" with information on each farm. The association reports that its Facebook page has 72,000 likes and its e-blast subscriber list includes more than 10,000 people.

Tyler Ames, Evelyn Abel's grandson and a full-time employee at the family farm, noted that visitors appreciate the paper trail maps, but "the app is nice because it gives a description of each farm." Ames added that the farm's own Facebook page enables it to communicate with customers.

"It's important to answer questions when they pop up on our Facebook page," Ames said.

University of California statewide agritourism coordinator Penny Leff said a social media presence is a must for a successful agritourism destination.

"Everything is social media now. The travelers are doing everything mobile and they are expecting it to be on Facebook," Leff said. "You are reaching people on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and direct invitations and contests are all social media."

At High Hill Ranch in Placerville, sisters Deanna and Courtney Ritter of Granite Bay said seeing their friends' social media posts from Apple Hill reminded them it was time to visit.

"When friends come here and take pictures, we want to take pictures too," Deanna Ritter said.

Agritourism destinations such as Apple Hill and Oak Glen in San Bernardino County are also finding ways to remain open beyond their traditional fall months, Leff said.

"The farms are expanding into their shoulder seasons: They are promoting their berry growers to get people there earlier in the year and some do an apple blossom festival, such as in Oak Glen," Leff said. "Apple Hill associate members are trying to expand by promoting other crops—Christmas trees and pumpkins."

Christa Campbell, co-owner with her husband, Tom Helfin, of Rainbow Orchards in Camino, grows about 30 different apple varieties. During the years, Campbell said she has found new ways to reach new customers.

"We've extended the season by starting in mid-June to the end of July with blueberries, raspberries and blackberries," Campbell said. "We also sell cider at 40 farmers markets in the Bay Area."

The craft brewery trend has led to increased interest in hard apple cider, Leff said, which attracts additional customers to apple country.

"Hard apple cider is going to be real useful for apple growers," she said. "The cider industry is helping to support other apple growers."

For example, family-operated Snow-Line Orchards in Oak Glen added a winery in recent years and now serves fruit-flavored wines and hard apple cider.

Rainbow Orchards co-owner Helfin described his customers' response to the farm's hard apple cider as "amazing." The farm bottles its own hard cider, and supply cannot keep up with the demand.

"We sold out of the hard cider in a week last year, two weeks this year, and we are now making another batch, so it's very good," Rainbow Orchards employee Betty Linville said.

Those who sell alcoholic beverages directly to customers take on higher risk, Leff said, such as increased insurance costs and paying for permits through state Alcoholic Beverage Control, but ultimately, she said, "it is a more positive thing for the industry."

Even with plenty of customers, challenges remain for these small farm business owners.

Campbell said she faces water quality regulations, food safety regulations and costly operating permits, including a state license to operate the cider mill.

"Small farmers have lots of regulations, and it's really hard to stay in business unless you are established and keep working at it for 41 years," she said.

What has been helpful for growers, Campbell said, was forming the Apple Hill Growers Association to assist with promoting the area as a tourist location.

"We band together and promote people to come here. We sell directly to the people, and that is what helps give us our edge," she said. "People keep coming back and we say thank you, because it helps us to keep farming."

The growers association said more than 1 million people visited the region's 52 apple and related farms last year, with about one-third each coming from Sacramento and the Bay Area.

Visiting Apple Hill with family, Amber Eilers of Woodland said, "We're just here to make memories. I wanted to get some good photos, plus it is nice to get away from the city."

Scott Larsen of Larsen Apple Barn and Bakeshop in Camino, the sixth generation in the family running the business, said, "It's pretty simple: just good product, over and over and over again."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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