San Diego Business Journal Ag-Tourism Has Well-Established
Roots Locally

When Evelyn Weidner first proposed starting a large-scale annual flower festival in North County several years ago, she didn't find a lot of support.

In fact, recalled Weidner, owner of Weidners' Gardens, Inc. in Encinitas, one of the neighboring nurseries flat-out refused.

When the idea was again proposed last year, however, the support was there for what would be a more low-key event, limited to five greenhouses in Encinitas.

This concept is more manageable , and easier to start with, said Weidner, who is spearheading the Encinitas Flower Celebration, which takes place the second weekend in June.

The effort is an example of agricultural tourism, a way in which nurseries, wineries, farms and similar facilities generate additional income by adding a spectator or participant element to what they do.

Often called ag-tourism or agri-tourism, this market niche has evolved in a way that is similar to how the concept of the flower celebration in Encinitas has changed.

There has been growth, said Ramiro Lobo, small farms adviser for the Agricultural Society of San Diego, a project of the University of California Cooperative Extension program and the county.

Although Lobo has also seen the progress of attractions such as the Flower Fields in Carlsbad in recent years, and growth in the number of places that cater to visitors, the development hasn't been documented, he said.

As a result, one of the main challenges to local ag-tourism has been to really package it and promote it, Lobo said.

"It's so fractioned that we don't know how much of it is going on," he explained.

In a week or so, that could change a little. The agricultural society is about to launch a Web site that would list various ag-tourism events and sites.

Ag-tourism has a lot of as-yet untapped potential locally, Lobo said.

"In counties like San Diego, where there is a large agricultural industry and a large urban population, we think it's an ideal tool to provide farmers with alternative markets and opportunities," he said.

Farming has never been an easy industry in which to make a profit, Lobo said. In that way, ag-tourism serves multiple purposes , generating admission fees, marketing the facility's product and even finding additional mainstream support for farmers' legislative causes.

Weidner, who has owned her nursery for 27 years, is very straightforward about the prospects within the ag-tourism niche.

"I wouldn't say it has a big future," she said. "I think it might have a future. Nothing in agriculture makes a lot of money."

Weidners' annual sales total more than $1 million. The nursery has a wholesale component and a retail side, including dig-your-own pansies and tuberous begonias.

The gardens are open to visitors on a seasonal basis starting in early spring and again in late fall.

When averaged during the whole year, about two tour buses come through a month, carrying 40-50 people each, Weidner said. The visitors are charged $1.50 each through the various tour operators.

Tourism requires a different set of skills from the agriculture-oriented businesses, according to Lobo. Among the issues that need to be dealt with are safety and liability, he said.

"Sometimes, even though you might have a good intention, if you're not doing it right, it may turn into a bad experience for the consumer," he said.

The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch is an example of agricultural tourism done right, Lobo said.

- Flower Fields Turns Profitable

The Flower Fields, which has been in existence for 75 years, had been unfenced and freely visited by the public until eight years ago.

The Carltas Co., which owns the fields, built a fence and began charging entrance fees to make the agricultural site more profitable.

The fields' primary area, more than 50 acres, is harvested each summer for ranunculus bulbs.

In 1993, admission cost 50 cents. Last year, it was $5 for adults, with lower rates for seniors, children and groups.

The fields currently has an average of 200,000 visitors a year during its 10-week seasons, according to Laurie Scullin, director of marketing for the Paul Ecke Ranch, which is also owned by locally based Carltas. The season began in early March.

As admission costs have increased, so has the sophistication of the Flower Fields as a visitor attraction, Scullin said.

The first year, there was a chain-link fence around the fields. Now, the area includes a garden center, additional garden attractions, a refreshment area and a 300-car parking lot.

Another addition this year was a restroom facility with running water.

Each project was another investment for Carltas. For instance, the restrooms cost $120,000 to build, according to the company. The extra garden attractions cost $250,000.

- User-Friendly And Accessible

The trick to succeeding in the ag-tourism market is being user-friendly and accessible, said Cami Mattson, president and CEO of the San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Simply opening the doors to visitors isn't enough, Mattson said. A facility would have to set regular hours, develop its visitor experience and do sufficient marketing.

By entering local ag-tourism, the different businesses put themselves in competition with San Diego's other attractions, from the beaches to theme parks, she noted.

"If a visitor needs to choose what they will do, then as a farm, for instance, you need to be able to have enough character and personality and pizzazz to be able to attract someone there," Mattson said.

The time spent at the facility would also have to be special, she said.

Especially when there is an opportunity to dig or take part, ag-tourism lends itself well to what's become increasingly important to the tourism industry as a whole , the experiential element.

"Visitors really expect more out of a vacation now," Mattson said. "They expect to be educated they want to learn, they want hands-on 'touch-feel-see and relate it to my life.'"

Lobo agreed.

"People don't just want to travel anymore," he said. "They want to be involved and learn something, and agriculture is something that lends itself to that.

"In addition, there is now a demand among urbanites to try to reconnect with basic values, things like food and where food comes from and agriculture can certainly play a role in that, too."