Dirt under your fingernails. The tang of freshly turned earth in your nose. Blue, blue skies as far as the eye can see and sunshine warm on your back. And in your hand: a hammer, or a shovel, or a bouquet of freshly picked salad greens. If you're looking to experience life on a farm, you need look no further than your own backyard.
"Agritourism" may be the new hot buzzword around the country, but in Delta County, agritourism is something farmers and ranchers here have been perfecting for several years. "Delta County is the poster child of agritourism in the State of Colorado," said Kelli Hepler, the tourism contractor for the county. "It has really become known that Delta County is where you go if you want to see what agritourism is all about."
Hepler said Delta County is a natural place for agritourism, simply because of the incredibly diverse amount of agriculture here. On any given day, a visitor can get up close and personal with cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, yaks, llamas, elk, buffalo and everything in between. There are farms showcasing hops, wine grapes and every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable. Agritourism is any activity that happens on a farm or ranch that serves to educate, inform and entertain visitors. At a basic level, that looks like farm stands and farm stores, where customers snap up freshly-picked vegetables or fruits, or value-added products, like jams, jellies or syrups made with local fruits.
Some places, like Red Shed Produce in Delta, offer hayrides, corn mazes and other activities on the farm, in addition to the selection of fresh, local foods available in their farm market. Owners Robert and Jannifer Conley have offered movie nights in their cornfield, and farm dinners highlighting their own produce. "They do a great job of agritourism," Hepler said.
Farmers and ranchers in Delta County are doing some really creative things. Hepler has known some vineyards to invite people to the farm, where they are taught how to trim vines and thin grapes. After a day of work and learning, guests are treated to a wine dinner in the vineyard. It's a beautiful arrangement: tourists get to be a farmer for a day, and the farmer gets the opportunity to teach a guest about their operation, get some much-needed farm chores done, and make a little money while they're at it.
Several ranches and farms offer farmstays, where tourists pay to learn, the curriculum being how to fix a fence, shear a sheep, trim a tree or muck out a barn. Lavish farm-to-table or wine dinners are becoming increasingly popular, meals that highlight locally raised beef, pork, chicken or mutton, prepared with local herbs, fruits and veggies, and served alongside a local award-winning cider, beer or wine.
The Living Farm in Paonia is one of the leaders in local agritourism, and it's because of the effort that owner Lynn Gillespie has put into making her farm more than just a place where food is grown. After many impromptu visits from people wanting to learn more about her operation, Gillespie jumped headfirst into the agritourism industry.
"She realized that for a lot of kids, these moments are very impactful," explained Living Farm employee Steven Kluck. "A lot of kids may never have interacted with a duckling or a sheep before, so for them to come out and experience that -- to see the plants, to pet the animals -- can be a life changing experience."
Gillespie re-worked her farm to offer a better educational experience for visitors. Visit the farm today, and you'll be directed on a self-guided tour of the 210 acres. Hepler and Gillespie worked to create signage around the farm, signs which direct and educate visitors about why strawberries are grown in a tower or about the new litter of piglets roaming in the pig pen. Gillespie's agritourism has even gone digital -- she offers an online gardening course.
Agritourism can incorporate a lot of different things. For example, Black Canyon Anglers, located on Gunnison River Farms about 11 miles outside of Delta, is well known for its guided Gold Medal fishing trips, attracting visitors here from all over the country who are seeking an experience of a lifetime. The agritourism piece comes into play simply because the fly-fishing trips originate from the farm. But part of the overall experience is certainly the stay on the farm, where guests can enjoy dinner prepared by executive chef Bill Frantz, who highlights the vegetables, fruits and meat raised on the farm in his dishes. "Their food is absolutely amazing," Hepler said. Even things such as bird watching, hunting or activities on the river are considered agritourism. It is the diversity of activities that enrich the experience.
Gunnison River Farms, which is certified organic and biodynamic, also offers a heritage CSA (community supported agriculture). Members enjoy weekly deliveries of fresh fruits and veggies as well as farm-raised and butchered lamb. On a regular basis, CSA members are welcome at the farm for farm-to-table dinners, wine dinners or cooking classes, where farm-grown ingredients are highlighted.
Numbers coming out of the state tourism office indicate that a farm that engages in agritourism can add about $36,000 annually to its profits. It's not a ton of money, Hepler said, but it's often enough to keep that next generation working on the farm. "That's why agritourism took off in the first place," Hepler said. "People were trying to figure out how to make a living doing something a little different but that still allowed them to farm. We're always evolving into different things."
All that agritourism pumps about $84 million annually into the state economy, and that's mostly the staycation folks -- people visiting here from other Colorado towns to see exactly what Delta County has to offer.
"We've been doing really well with agritourism," Hepler said. "We get a lot of press and a lot of attention from the Colorado tourism office and media people who are looking at us to see what kinds of things we do here." In 2005, Delta County Tourism won an award for its efforts to promote local agritourism.
Agritourism has a long reaching effect, too, Hepler explained. If a farmer offers a tour today, the visitor typically will make a few purchases of produce, meat, wine or the value-added products, such as the wool pillows made from her sheep at the Living Farm, or the infused olive oils and vinegars from the Orchard Valley Farms in Paonia. But the experience of being on the farm tends to stay with a person, and visitors will return time and again to that same farm to purchase food. Roxie Morris from Red Mountain Ranches says they have longtime customers from other states who plan their annual vacations around the farm's schedule, so they can be sure to come here and get their cases of peaches and apples. "Farmers have started noticing that sales are steadily increasing, and it has to do with people visiting their farms," Hepler said. "People are attracted to these places and the vibe on the farms. Agritourism helps get customers onto the farm who turn into long term customers."
One of the nice things about agritourism is that it's best to highlight a real, working farm, where the primary focus is on food production. In recent years nationwide there has been an increase in touristy farm tours on a massive scale, complete with bouncy houses for the kids and ATMs around every corner. Delta County isn't like that --and that's a great thing. "Agritourism here isn't contrived, it's not this Disney-esque experience. It's real," Hepler said.
Rob Kimball from Orchard Valley Farms & Market in Paonia explains how a visitor to their place last summer, a young man in his 20s, was amazed to discover that onions actually grew in the ground. "That's the kind of thing we take for granted, but so many people who come here have never seen an actual apple tree," Kimball said. "People come here for our fruit, but even more they come for the experience. People are so disconnected and there is a certain level of comfort when you go to the farm and see where your food is coming from. It's very popular."
Jeff Schwartz with Big B's and Delicious Orchards agrees. "When families are out picking, walking around the gardens, they are totally psyched," he said. "And their perspective changes tremendously. It simplifies their perspective and it inspires them to do something -- when you pick food for yourself, it maybe inspires you to do something else for yourself, too. To cook maybe. Whatever you can do to empower yourself is powerful."
Delicious Orchards has become a destination spot for both locals and visitors alike, and is one of the places in Delta County that offers the whole agritourism experience. The farm and market features acres and acres organic, biodynamic of u-pick grapes, arugula, spearmint, mulberries, basil, raspberries, tomatoes and tons more. The cafe highlights cuisine made from farm-grown ingredients, a tasting room featuring Big B's hard ciders (head up there now to check out the seasonal beauties, a pineapple hot pepper cider and a cherry jalapeno cider). Staff also hosts barbecues, concerts and family activities right there on the farm. "This is an experience," Schwartz said. "The place speaks for itself. There is a lot to do here, and that's how we designed it. It's all very easily accessible, clean, orderly, welcoming and beautiful."
The state tourism office is pushing both agritourism and outdoor recreation, and Hepler and the local tourism cabinet are working to bridge those two tourist avenues. More and more local producers are getting into agritourism, she said, and are finding creative ways to bring in those businesses that aren't strictly ag-related. For example, visitors can do a farmstay, and then take in a paddleboard lesson from Western Slope SUP in Hotchkiss, a beer-making class at Brewmeister in Delta, or a heritage tour at Pioneer Town or Fort Uncompahgre.
Agritourism experiences can be found in every community of Delta County, and Hepler suggests trying out several different activities to really gain an understanding of where your food comes from. "Agritourism elevates the value of the product," she explained. "When you tour a farm and you see all the effort that it takes to put that peach in your pie or that steak on your plate, you really appreciate the process of how it ends up on your dinner table."
The best way to experience agritourism is to look at www.Colorado.gov and search the Farm Fresh Directory by county, which lists the farms, ranches, wineries, farm markets and others that offer ag activities locally. Agritourism activities are also listed on the Events page at www.VogaCo.org, and Kelli Hepler is always happy to direct visitors toward the perfect agritourism experience. She can be reached at 970-471-9621.