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California Farmers Launch Project that Promotes Agritourism
Cherry Growers Counter Urban Sprawl
The Gazette and Associated Press
February 19, 2006
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‘‘It’s off the beaten path,’’ cherry farmer Scott Riley says.
But that doesn’t stop folks from flocking by the hundreds to Riley’s farm each summer when the cherries are ready for picking. With the right kind of promotion, he figures, they will come year-round to hang out on a real farm, press their own apple cider and pick up a pie.
Riley is leading about a dozen farmers who banded together recently to promote agricultural tourism in response to Beaumont's explosive growth.
The farmers are pushing for land-use reforms that would allow them to expand orchards and create bed-and-breakfast inns modeled after those in California's wine regions.
They're betting that such an "agritourism" district would attract some of the millions of people who travel on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and the nearby desert resort of Palm Springs each year, as well as inspire others to get into farming.
Riley realizes there is a big obstacle: the rapid urbanization of this former farm region 75 miles east of Los Angeles.
"We might be too late, what with everything gobbled up for housing here," he said. "But we need to do something, or else we're all going to dry up."
The population in Beaumont has nearly doubled to about 23,000 in the past five years. Fruit trees, once ubiquitous on the local landscape, have been in decline the last several decades.
Cherry grower John Guldseth said at least 40 orchards were around when he started farming in 1973. He estimated about 10 cherry groves remain.
The fruit's decline reflects that of many commodities in California, said Joe Elizondo, director of the Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship's small farm program.
The business wasn't lucrative and the children of many farmers chose not to continue. Most of those who did worked small plots that didn't produce enough to supply increasingly larger, centralized markets, and they couldn't compete with cheaper, imported crops.
Riley and others who want to preserve their way of life say the solution is to make a farm visit appealing to visitors looking for an urban escape.
They'd like to create an "ag adventure" map to point out rural attractions in the San Gorgonio Pass, a swath of land between the San Bernardino National Forest and the San Jacinto Mountains.
Studies show the public’s interest in agritourism has grown. In a 2005 survey of 294 Northern California residents, 56 percent of respondents said they have participated in farm tourism and 57 percent said they were interested in agritourism, according to the study’s author, Desmond Jolly, director of the University of California Small Farm Program.