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'Agritourism' becomes Calif. cash crop

Income from visitors helps farmers survive

VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. -- At the reins of a team of Clydesdales, Craig Underwood posed for photos with a posse of suburbanites and city slickers before taking them on a wagon ride around his farm.

This isn't where he thought his career would lead. His family has farmed in these parts for four generations, raising vegetables for markets around the world. But today, the 62-year-old grower is pushing a cash crop of a different kind.

Underwood has created the equivalent of an agricultural amusement park amid the Southern California sprawl of tract homes and shopping malls, providing an authentic farm experience to people hungry to reconnect with their rural roots.

More than 100,000 people a year visit the farm, where visitors can climb hay bales, pick their own strawberries, and feed veggies to rabbits and cows.

''Everybody looks at farm life as an idyllic way to live, and they want in some way to experience that," said Underwood, noting that entertainment farming now makes up one-third of his business. ''More and more, we want to be able to return people to the farm. And in today's environment, it really helps us stay competitive."

Across California, there is a growing convergence between agriculture and entertainment as small farms turn to a bit of show business to survive.

Perhaps fittingly in this entertainment capital, more than 600 farms around the state now offer a direct-marketing component, a fivefold increase over the past decade. In addition to traditional enticements such as fruit stands and pick-your-own plots, growers are carving mazes in cornfields, opening dude ranches, and setting up pony rides and petting zoos to draw customers eager to experience farm life.

Dubbed agritourism or agritainment, the movement is picking up steam as associations form to promote entertainment farming and jurisdictions relax regulations to make it easier to launch such ventures. Agritourism now generates an estimated $75 million annually throughout California, said Desmond Jolly, director of the University of California Small Farm Center in Davis.

Although that represents a fraction of California's $30 billion-a-year farm economy, Jolly said that for some farmers the additional income can mean the difference between staying afloat or drowning in a sea of red ink.

''It's no longer seen as a novelty," said Jolly, whose center keeps a public database of agritourism operations and provides guidance to farmers looking to start such ventures. ''We're now looking at the farm as something that has assets beyond just what it grows."

Facing a mound of regulations and a surge of foreign competitors, farmer Paul Fantozzi set out to earn extra money three years ago by carving a maze in a cornfield along Interstate 5 near the community of Patterson. Each fall, thousands of visitors pay $7 each ($5 for children) for the privilege of walking miles of narrow pathways flanked by towering green stalks.

Fantozzi, 45, figures the maze now makes up about 5 percent of his farm revenue. He said he'd like to grow the entertainment component so that it constitutes at least half the business.

''I see a need to do that in the future just to survive," said the fourth-generation farmer. Markets for small farmers ''are disappearing in California, so we have to find some other way."

Entertainment farming is not for everyone. Many growers guard their privacy and are reluctant to allow strangers on their properties. And there are some who question whether such endeavors are legitimate farming enterprises and worry that farming could quickly become lost amid the amusements.

Then there are looming concerns about liability and insurance.

Watsonville, Calif., grower Nita Gizdich, an agritourism pioneer and regular speaker at conferences to promote the movement, said she has talked to plenty of farmers who want to give it a try but are leery. She knows some who have been put out of business by too many insurance claims.

After 40 years of having people out to her 90-acre farm to pick their own fruit, taste a slice of homemade pie, or comb through her antiques shop and gift store, the 70-year-old apple and berry grower considers herself lucky that she's never had an accident.

Like others, Gizdich said she and her husband, Vince, weren't exactly looking to become tour guides when they started. In fact, she said, some growers thought she was crazy for opening her farm to outsiders.

''If we hadn't done this, I'm sorry, but you wouldn't be talking to me today," she said. ''This is how we survived."

Six years ago, California lawmakers made it easier for farmers to open their properties to overnight guests. Some counties have eased restrictions on growers who want to give visitors a taste of country living through festivals, fairs, and other farm activities.

Even universities are responding to the shift. California Polytechnic State University's vaunted agriculture program in San Luis Obispo now offers courses on agritourism and wine tourism as part of a curriculum on sustainable farming.

''There's a lot of thought going into what types of activities smaller operators can provide to supplement their incomes," said David Wehner, dean of Cal Poly's agriculture department.

It used to be that such activities were simply sidelines meant to supplement wholesale operations. But increasingly, they are becoming big business for small farmers, and in some cases make up most of what they do.

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