Ag-tourism: Entertainment or education?

Lately, I have been guiding tours for a variety of groups that are either passing through Yuma on their way to California or somehow related to the agricultural industry.

A few weeks back, I was asked to be a tour-bus guide for a collection of about 20 tourists from San Diego.

As I chatted with this particular group, I asked them where they were headed after they left Yuma following the tour that afternoon. Back to San Diego, they told me, almost in unison.

These visitors weren't simply passing through Yuma on their way to Las Vegas or Phoenix, they came to specifically visit Yuma and its produce industry.

I had a momentary flashback to our successful Lettuce Days celebration last month. There, I volunteered at the equipment display area, answering question after question about the vegetables grown here and the science behind it.

It was as clear then as it was on this recent tour that people who know little about agriculture are really interested in learning about vegetable production in Yuma.

Back on the bus, the tour concluded with a visit to a Somerton broccoli field in the process of being harvested. These 65- to almost 90-year-old people, cameras ready, acted like eager children as they hopped off the bus to get, for some, their first glimpse of how their food is produced.

Things that we take for granted are true treasures for others.

As I drove back to the college, I began to think about how lucky we are to be in an area where agriculture is such a dominant picture in our landscape and wanted to find out why so many people are drawn to learning about it.

I quickly realized that while the popularity of specific enterprises such as pumpkin patches or U-Pick farms may ebb and flow, the idea of catering to the public desire for a “farm experience” remains.

In fact, a Wisconsin ag-tourism project in 1995 identified five primary audiences for agricultural tourism: 1) elderly people who take bus tours to see the country; 2) people who are aware that agriculture is high-tech, very visible and educational; 3) people who want to learn about where their food comes from; 4) families interested in tours that could be enjoyed by both parents and children; and 5) persons already involved in agriculture, including international visitors.

Agricultural tourism can educate urban tourists about the problems and challenges facing growers and the people associated with farming. While most Yuma residents know that agriculture is a vital component to our community, more and more people from urban areas are becoming isolated from the industry.

In December 2002, the Yuma Area Ag Council invited members of our state Legislature to Yuma for a one-day agricultural tour of the produce industry in our area. It seems that even our state policy makers in Phoenix appear out of touch with our billion-dollar produce industry.

Ag-tourism provides an educational avenue for people who are not in mainstream agriculture.

Yet, ag-tourism in Yuma is infinitesimal when compared to other farming areas in the United States. As an example, ag-tourism has caught fire in the Midwest, primarily due to the falling prices of agronomic crops and products produced in that area of the country.

There, farmers use ag-tourism as an entertainment venue and a supplement to their income. The chief qualification for Midwest rural landowners who expect to make a living from their land through ag-tourism is the desire and ability to cater to tourists and meet their expectations of a farm visit.

Some farmers have made their farms totally accessible to visitors. Tourists are invited to observe the growing crop, view the harvest process and taste and purchase the final product. The whole visit usually takes just one or two hours, but some farms have facilities for visitors to linger, perhaps to have a picnic and simply enjoy the rural ambiance.

Last fall in Wisconsin, several workshops were organized with farmers, local business leaders and motor coach tour operators to discuss how best to organize and put on farm tours.

Committees were formed to look at tour site evaluations, inventory of the area's resources, tour marketing and familiarization of tours. Another committee is organizing tours for people such as tour bus guides and local reporters to educate them about agricultural tourism.

Yuma agriculture is much different than in the Midwest. Agriculture here is fast paced, big business, multi-state, transitory and complex, and it is clearly not dependent on tourism for its survival. Understandably, food safety and security issues also prohibit large-scale visitation to Yuma produce fields.

Consequently, Yuma ag-tourism may never develop into anything more than a few isolated tours for selected groups each year.

Yet, Yuma agriculture does understand the necessity of public outreach and education. Youth organizations like FFA and 4-H, successful events like Lettuce Days, our weekly Farmers Market and our Yuma County Fair provide opportunities for agricultural experiences at a local level.

It seems fitting that if tourists or visitors at all levels can be educated on issues that concern our agricultural industry either from tours or other agriculturally related events policies more favorable to agriculture or those that promote agriculture awareness could be better established in our area.