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domingo, 18 de fevereiro de 2007

Old McDonald Gave a Tour of His Farm

Dee Harley gives 2 to 10 tours a week at her farm in Pescadero, Calif.
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Published: February 17, 2007

PESCADERO, Calif. — It was no ordinary business outing for Erik Franks. Under a steely sky one recent Saturday morning, Mr. Franks and some colleagues from a nearby law firm visited Harley Farms, a nine-acre dairy farm here, for a tour and a crash course in the art of making goat cheese.
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The Age of Agri-Tourism
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Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Cheese is Harley Farms’ passion but tourism helps pay the bills.

First, though, came an up-close-and-personal introduction to 200 American Alpine goats. The day began in a pasture, where a dozen goats surrounded Mr. Franks and began chewing on his clothes. Later, in the paddock, he held a four-day-old baby. In the milking parlor, he used his thumb and forefinger to pinch a goat’s udder and squeeze fresh milk into a bowl.

“The whole milking thing was a lot easier than I expected,” said Mr. Franks, 25, who works at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto, a one-hour drive away. “Definitely not the way I spend an average Saturday.” The outing was arranged by the firm as part of a team-building exercise.

Mr. Franks’s introduction to chèvre is part of an effort that has farmers reaching out to urbanites and suburbanites in new and creative ways. With farm income for many family farmers still weak, many of them have been forced to diversify their operations with nonagricultural activities just to survive.

Farmers describe these activities — on-site markets, seasonal festivals and occasional overnight guests — as agri-tourism. Most of these endeavors begin in the spring, making an already busy time of year even more hectic. The benefits can be undeniable.

At Harley Farms, for example, the owner, Dee Harley, celebrates the arrival of baby goats by welcoming school groups, corporate teams and independent visitors into her world for a few hours upon request. All told, Ms. Harley gives 2 to 10 tours a week, year-round. The tours cost $10 a person and comprise at least 25 percent of annual revenue.

“We couldn’t survive on tours alone, but the money we make from them certainly allows us to stay small and dedicated to quality artisan cheese-making,” she said. “It’s become a huge and irreplaceable part of our income.”

Agri-tourism is nothing new, of course. For years, American farmers have set up mazes of maize to entertain children as well as “u-pick” apple, blueberry and strawberry operations. These operations still exist.

What’s changed, however, is the economic climate that surrounds them. A recent study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University indicates that over the last 30 years, farm income has remained flat while farm expenses have more than tripled.

To balance their ledgers, many farmers have become dependent upon government subsidies and income from second jobs known as “off-farm activities.” Statistics from the Economic Research Service, an agency within of the Department of Agriculture, provide a snapshot of this situation. In 1977, family farmers had an average household income of $14,867 — $10,636 of that from off-farm activities. By 2005, the gap between profit sources had widened, with the average income at $81,420 and off-farm income equaling $66,782.

For many farmers today, agri-tourism is a way to reduce the need for a second job. While the Department of Agriculture does not keep statistics on how many of the country’s 2.1 million farms engage in this activity, Jane Eckert, president of Eckert AgriMarketing, a consulting firm in St. Louis, estimated the number at 4 or 5 percent.

Ms. Eckert said this number was up considerably from a 2 percent estimate she had made in the 1990s, and cited a 2000 study from Cornell University that reported farmers who turned to agri-tourism could be as much as 40 percent more profitable than those who did not.

“We know that people who are involved in agri-tourism have greater on-farm income to the extent that they’re relying less on off-farm income,” she said. “For many, this extra income can make a huge difference in the quality of life.”

This difference is evident at the Picket Fence Creamery, a grass-based cow dairy in Woodward, Iowa, about 30 miles northwest of Des Moines. The owners, Jeff and Jill Burkhart, sell milk, cheese, butter, ice cream and beef from a tiny store on the farm, and supplement profits with tours.

These tours cost $5 a person and are similar to the ones at Harley Farms. Ms. Burkhart introduces visitors to some of the animals, and then leads them through the milking parlor and bottling plant. Out in the pasture, she teaches them about the benefits of avoiding artificial hormones. The two-hour experience concludes in the store, where each guest receives a glass of milk and a dish of ice cream.

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