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Banking on agri-tourism.

STATEWIDE -- Dub Darneille grew up on a ranch near Joseph where the fall cattle roundup was a ritual of ranch life. Little did he suspect that horseback-riding visitors would one day pay to be part of that ritual and that income from outfitting hunting and fishing parties would supplement ranching revenues.

Darneille's Nineback Outfitter operation on the family's Joseph Creek Ranch opened its cattle guards to vacationers in 1995 and is one of hundreds of rural Oregon enterprises that has embraced tourism. "We live in such a great place that starting an outfitter business had been in the back of our minds for years," says Darneille. "It just gradually developed and is becoming increasingly important to our operation."

The same could be said of agri-tourism in Oregon. Low commodity prices, stiffer environmental regulations and global competition combined to send Oregon per farm income in 1999 to just $8,454 -- a 17-year low. To supplement their incomes, many farmers have turned to agri-tourism, which includes everything from winery tours to hayrides to you-pick fruit and flower fields to dude ranches. But whether tourists can provide the financial boost needed to sustain Oregon farms in the future remains to be seen.

"This is an emerging market and very little research has been done," says Mandy Cole of the Oregon Tourism Commission. A 1994 Dean Runyan and Associates study found that visitors to Oregon farms and ranches spent $26.4 million -- a number that's surely higher today, with Wasco, Clackamas and Hood River counties and a number of counties in Southwest Oregon investing heavily in agri-tourism.

"From our perspective, the interest in agri-tourism is increasing dramatically," says Todd Davidson, executive director of the Oregon Tourism Commission. "Farms, ranches and vineyards are looking for ways to add value, and opening their doors to tourism is one way to do that."

The benefits of agri-tourism go beyond just the added income. Educating visitors about the contributions of farms and ranches to our dinner tables and highlighting the state's agricultural roots may actually do more in the long run to save the family farm.

"Agri-tourism helps reconnect people with the state's farming and ranching roots and creates an understanding of what it takes to produce food and fiber," says Mary Stewart, executive director of the Agri-Business Council of Oregon.

Adding momentum to the state's agri-tourism movement is the collaboration among farmers, ranchers and local tourism officials, who are working together to maximize the effort. Jackson and Josephine counties in Southern Oregon are the latest to join the organized ranks, forming the Oregon Wine and Farm Tour earlier this year. The tour's 15 charter members include heavy hitters such as Bear Creek Corp., which markets its fruits, candy and flowers online, via catalogs and in retail stores, as well as smaller operations such as Rising Sun Farms, Weisinger's of Ashland and Foris Vineyards.

"We're looking at an authentic farm model based more on the European experience, not Napa Valley," says co-organizer Anne Root, whose Eden Valley Orchards is part of the tour. "There will be a rich diversity of orchards, farms, vineyards, stone mills -- even a marble quarry."

Diversity is also part of the Hood River Fruit Loop, an established tour with 27 participants whose wares include alpacas and trout and a wide assortment of fruits and vegetables.

"Hopefully we can help change the buying practices of visitors," says Genevieve Scholl, head of public affairs and marketing for the Hood River County Chamber and Visitors Council. "Buy local. Buy Oregon. That is a key message."
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Author:Korbulic, Mary
Publication:Oregon Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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