Attracting agritourism: Farm looks to be destination for family vacation
Special to The Union
Below Table Mountain, cattle and sheep graze, chickens forage between rows of century-old olive trees and 40 different fruits are grown for market on a 2,000-acre farm with a Mediterranean microclimate comparable to Spain.
Chaffin Family Orchards, a regular fixture at Nevada City’s Saturday Farmers Market, is poised to become a destination for families who want to vacation on a working farm.
Nestled in the shade of an olive grove, planted by the University of California, Berkeley, and farm manager Del Chaffin a century ago, sit four unassuming tent cabins.
The cabins are part of a new partnership with Chaffin Family Orchards and a European-based agritourism company called Feather Down Farm Days.
“It’s just a way for people to take their family out to a real working farm,” said Chris Kerston, one of three managing partners of Chaffin Orchards.
Inside, the tent cabins are cozy with all the comforts of home — a dining area, wood stove, wood floors, a well stocked primitive kitchen complete with coffee grinder and French press, a bunk bed, cupboard bed, master bedroom and even a composting toilet.
The cabins are part of Feather Down Farm Days signature experience and can be found on farms in the same cookie-cutter fashion throughout Europe — in Great Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
Chaffin Family Orchards is the first farm to partner with the company in California and the third farm in the U.S. Other U.S. farms include Kinnikinnick Farm in Caledonia, Ill., and Stony Creek Farm in Walton, N.Y.
Feather Down Farm Days hopes to set up 50 such farm-based camps in California. Farmers at Chaffin Family Orchards would eventually like to have 10 tents.
Within walking distance of their camp, visitors will find “The Honestey Shop” to stock up on local produce and other cooking supplies, a chicken coop to gather fresh eggs and a wood-fired oven for oven roasts, pizza, soups and stews.
Grown at the farm throughout the year, are apricots, cherries, peaches, nectarines, figs, pomegranates, avocadoes, pears, persimmons, mandarins, oranges, grapefruits, lemons and olives. Chaffin’s award-winning extra virgin olive oil is known for its mild, well balanced buttery flavor. Of the 600 acres of olive trees planted a century ago, 200 remain.
“There is not another planting like that in North America,” Chaffin said of the trees considered some of the oldest in North America still in production.
Livestock grazing is carefully managed. Every seven to 10 days, sheep are moved through the orchards as part of the farm’s permaculture-based philosophy. The animals mow the weeds and eliminate the need to spray with chemicals.
Chickens are rotated in much the same manner and are used as pest control, eating the larvae from the fallen fruit at the base of the trees. The chickens eat the bugs and in turn leave behind droppings that help fertilize the grove.
“You take a bug problem and turn it into a fertilizing benefit,” Kerston said.
As of last week, the olive trees have been certified organic. The farm uses organic inputs on everything else and is working toward certifying the other crops but isn’t there yet.
Students from a local Waldorf School and nearby Butte College and Chico State visit the farm to learn.
For campers, there will be children’s activities in the orchard, wildflower and waterfall tours on nearby Table Mountain and an opportunity to participate in daily farm chores. Sunset Magazine has the first booking in April.
“It really is everything agritourism should be,” Kerston said.
Agritourism in Nevada County
So far, agritourism efforts in Nevada County have revolved around wineries and tasting rooms with the exception of a few farm stands, seasonal attractions like a pumpkin patch at Bierwagen’s Donner Trail Fruit and targeted events like farm-to-table dinners and school-to-farm field trips.
Agritourism can include farm stands or shops, U-pick, farm stays, tours, on-farm classes, fairs, festivals, pumpkin patches, Christmas tree farms, winery weddings, orchard dinners, youth camps, barn dances, hunting or fishing and guest ranches, according to the University of California Cooperative Extension UC Small Farm Program website.
In 2008, more than 2.4 million visitors participated in agritourism at California farms and ranches, according to the site.
Farm stays or overnight lodging on a working farm is gaining in popularity. There are even websites devoted to helping folks find a farm to vacation on such as, Farm Stay U.S.
This winter, UCCE hosted a series of “Agritourism Intensive” classes for California farmers with examples of successful operations such as Yolo County’s Full Belly Farm known for its annual Hoes Down Harvest Festival, an event that draws thousands of people each year.
Agritourism could provide a supplemental income for Nevada County farms, but the idea would have to be carefully weighed, said Farm Advisor Roger Ingram, University of California Cooperative Extension Placer and Nevada counties.
“There’s opportunity, but you really just have to evaluate how best it fits with your farm,” said Ingram.
While agritourism has been kicked around for more than a decade, a number of challenges come up in Nevada County.
The biggest impediment to agribusiness in Nevada County is access. Many farms in Nevada County are located down narrow, backcountry roads that could present emergency fire headaches not to mention neighborhood drama with extra traffic and noise.
“A few extra cars a couple of weekends in a year may not be a big deal. Regular events for several weeks that attract a lot of people may cause neighbor complaints,” said Ingram.
Another thing to consider is if the farmer or rancher enjoys being around people, he or she can afford any extra infrastructure, liability insurance or staff and whether or not such an enterprise could provide a positive return.
Besides managing Chaffin Family Orchards, Kerston is the president of the board of the Nevada City Farmers Market.
When he was 13, he moved from Southern California to Meadow Vista, just south of Colfax. These days, his parents live in Penn Valley. His wife, Kathleen, is from Grass Valley and grew up on a small cattle ranch, showing animals at the fair. The two were married at Empire Mine State Park. The Kerstons live with their two small sons on the Butte County farm.
Kerston would like to see agritourism take off in Nevada County.
It’s not uncommon for Kerston to make two to three trips a week to Nevada County in the summer months to attend farmers market board meetings, make delivery drops and attend the Saturday market. He says the local food movement is strong in Nevada County.
Though not the biggest market Chaffin Orchards attends, the farm’s direct sales volumes are highest in Nevada City, where it’s not uncommon for people to buy 10 lugs of fruit at a time.
The partnership with Feather Down Farm Days is a trial, says Kerston, one that if successful, could serve as an agritourism model for other farms in the state.
“I think it’s important to educate consumers about where food comes from,” he said.
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at 530-401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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