By Pat Caldwell
VALE – Agritourism might be the next big incentive to attract people and dollars to Malheur County, some officials say.
Janet Dodson, a consultant for the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association, points to successful agritourism in other parts of Oregon such as Hood River as an example of how the concept can work.
Dodson, an agritourism development specialist, is working with counties in the region to entice visitors to local farms and ranches.
“Agritourism has been around a long time and it is not a term a lot of people are familiar with,” Dodson said.
The idea is to attract outside visitors to a local farms or ranches, where they can see how agriculture producers work and live. They also can buy newly harvested products.
Efforts could include tours, farm stands, farmers markets, horseback riding, visit to wineries, orchards and gardens, and petting zoos.
“It has really grown in interest in recent years because of cultural changes as more people are interested in connecting with where food comes from. They are now generations removed from the land, and they don’t understand it so a lot of people are seeking that connection to nature,” said Dodson, who lives in North Powder.
Dodson said that urge to reconnect with nature results in people traveling to agriculture areas to explore and learn about the industry.
A local working group formed recently to work on the idea of a farm loop and a second planning session is expected in early June. So far the working group consists of Dodson and representatives from the Nyssa, Vale and Ontario chambers of commerce.
“It is open to anybody that has an interest in working on things to make things happen,” said Dodson.
Char Raney-McGinnis, Nyssa Chamber of Commerce executive director, said agritourism is about educating the public.
“I think it is important for people to realize that not only does their food come from the ground, it comes from generations of history of men and women growing our products,” said Raney-McGinnis.
John Breidenbach, Ontario Chamber of Commerce executive director, sees potential in agritourism.
“We already have so many farmers markets and farmers and tourists are going to want to see that. It will have a lot of merit if I can get the community engaged and willing to open their driveways. We are an agriculture-based economy and to be able to tell that story is huge,” said Breidenbach.
The agritoursim program is part of a larger plan spearheaded by Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism agency and the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association.
One piece of the agritourism paradigm that could work in Malheur County is what is known as farm loops, Dodson said.
The driving loop consists of a group of farms, farm stands, breweries, wineries and other agriculture operations that open their doors to tourists. Visitors rely on a loop map to drive from one operation to another.
A good example of the agritourism idea is the 35-mile Hood River Fruit Loop.
“When we look at a farm loop, we look at what may be involved and it might be restaurants that focus on locally grown crops or an onion plant, orchards, wineries, farm stands or any of those kinds of things. You want a variety so you integrate a variety of things,” said Dodson.
The program is voluntary, Dodson said.
“We talk to property owners and ask if they would like to be part of it. Properties would put out a sign when they want guests to stop by,” said Dodson.
Breidenbach said if anyone is interested in joining the work group to contact him at 541-889-8012.
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