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Apple tourism drops after major wildfire

Issue Date: September 22, 2021
By Ching Lee
Stephanie Lundin, right, of Larsen Apple Barn in Camino, passes an apple sample to London Currie as her mother, Kellie Currie of Placerville, far left, brother Colin and grandmother Sandi Cann watch. The family visited Apple Hill, an agritourism destination in El Dorado County that features nearly 50 farms.
Photo/Ching Lee

It should be bustling at Apple Hill in El Dorado County this time of year.

The Northern California agritourism hot spot typically attracts thousands of visitors in the weeks leading up to October, its busiest month. But operators say concerns about wildfire and smoke, plus misinformation about road closures, may still be keeping people home.

Their message: Apple Hill is open for business, and it's safe to come.

The Caldor Fire, which started Aug. 14 and has scorched more than 219,000 acres in El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties, remains active. But it did not damage any of the nearly 50 farms that comprise Apple Hill. Wildfire smoke in the region has largely dissipated, but farm owners say foot traffic at Apple Hill so far has been lighter than past years.

"We're hoping for a really good October," said Evelyn Abel, owner of Abel's Apple Acres.

She noted business dropped 63% during opening weekend. It was expected, she said, "because the smoke had been very bad" and parts of Highway 50—the main corridor into Apple Hill—were closed.

"People still came out, just not as many," said Terri Robinson, Abel's daughter.

Most Apple Hill farms open during Labor Day weekend, and this year was no different. With parts of the region still affected by evacuation orders and warnings, some residents in the community criticized the Apple Hill Growers Association for opening too soon when evacuees coming home were still trying to get settled.

Others voiced concern that heavy traffic from Apple Hill could hinder firefighters and first responders.

On its Facebook page, the growers association pointed out that most its farms were not under evacuation orders, and that the few that were had been downgraded to a warning status as Apple Hill was set to open. The group also said the busy time usually begins in late September, when roads traditionally are heavily trafficked by tourists driving into the Sierra foothills.

Nathan Pereau, general manager of Fenton Herriott Vineyards, said opening weekend was "so dead" at Apple Hill that clogged roads were not an issue.

"People stayed away anyways, even more so," he said. "We went days without seeing people, which is quite rare for this time of the year. Since then, we're still seeing a down trend."

At Madrona Vineyards, Tammy Amburgey, who works in the tasting room, said it closed for two weeks due to warnings of possible evacuations due to the fire. Though there was no order for people to leave, "we felt it was our duty and responsibility" to not draw people into an area that could be evacuated, she said.

"We figured leaving the roads more open for fire personnel was more important," Amburgey said.

Though business has been slower, she said it's picked up now that Apple Hill is officially open and the smoke has lifted. "We're definitely seeing more and more people," she said.

The fire and smoke impacts come after "a phenomenal year" in 2020, Abel said, when COVID lockdowns had people clamoring for outdoor activities and led to an uptick in farm visits, including people coming to Apple Hill.

Kandi Tuso, who runs Apple Ridge Farms with her husband, Steve, described a similar surge in business last year: "Literally from the day that we opened to the day that we closed, it was nonstop," she said. "They were coming up seven days a week instead of just that traditional weekend time that they came up."

This year, the farm was set to open the weekend before Labor Day, she said, but it was under mandatory evacuation. Now that the fire has moved farther east and the area has "calmed down," she said, she's seeing more families come through again. But with Highway 50 toward Lake Tahoe still closed, she noted that tourists traveling from Nevada so far have been "nonexistent."

Johann Smit, owner of Hidden Star Camino, which runs a taproom and bakery and specializes in hard apple ciders, said customers coming from Reno account for nearly 45% of his business.

His farm is one of only a few in Apple Hill that remains open year-round. He was forced to evacuate for three weeks due to the fires, which caused him to miss Apple Hill's opening weekend, though he reopened the following week.

Smit estimated business is down at least 50% for this time of year, when there should be hundreds of people streaming into his taproom. In October, visitors typically number in the thousands, he noted.

"We're open every day, but there's just nobody here," Smit said. "We're not going to have the numbers that we had last year," which he said was his best year.

Kellie Currie of Placerville, who was with her son Colin, daughter London and mother Sandi Cann, said they happened to see that Apple Hill was open when they stopped at a nearby restaurant for lunch. She said she thinks many families that make the annual trip to Apple Hill just haven't yet come because they still don't realize much of Highway 50 is open.

After they ventured to Apple Hill, Currie said, her children wanted to pick apples. But they were disappointed to see the U-pick farm they went to was closed. So they stopped by Larsen Apple Barn, which sells prepicked apples.

Farms that allow patrons to pick their own apples have declined at Apple Hill, in large part due to concerns about the need for ladders and liability, said Steve Tuso of Apple Ridge Farms. Some farms still offer U-pick berries and lavender earlier in the season, U-pick pumpkins in the fall and choose-and-cut Christmas trees in the winter.

To offer U-pick, Tuso said he would need to add staff members to guide customers in the orchard to ensure safety and to prevent damage to trees. With the different varieties of apples in his orchard, he said he also doesn't want people picking apples that aren't ready.

Scott Larsen, owner of Larsen Apple Barn, said the biggest impact from the fires was from road closures during the last weeks of August when he was harvesting pears. Even though tourism has been slower, he said his farm has remained busy because of his wholesale business.

(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.




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