How about looking at Saturn through a telescope, picking your own cherries and blueberries, learning from UC Merced scientists how they estimate snow pack and water flow, taking a dip in the river, tasting local olive oil, wine and cheese, painting a picture, petting a lamb, and camping out in the walnut orchard? About 600 people enjoyed all this and more at the Pick and Gather Festival at Riverdance Farm in Merced County June 5 and 6.
Organic farmers Cindy Lashbrook and Bill Thomson, owners of the 70-acre diversified Riverdance Farm, host this annual event the weekend after Memorial Day. Lashbrook and Thomson are among the growing number of small and mid-scale California farmers and ranchers who open their farm gates to the public for enjoyment and education, helping to build community and connection between the 98 percent of Californians who do not work in agriculture and the 2 percent who do.
The Pick and Gather this year was a mellow family-friendly event with bands, folk-singers and belly-dancers entertaining the crowd. Informational booths, staffed by the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, the WIC program, Valley Land Alliance, the Merced Farm Bureau and other local groups, were very popular. Local farms offered honey, jams, lemonade, olive oil and other goodies in a shady general store, and there was plenty of room to sit and enjoy lunch prepared by vendors or to eat picnics brought from home. Delicious ripe U-pick organic cherries and blueberries were at wholesale prices. With unemployment in Merced County at about 20 percent this year, Lashbrook and Thomson keep the admission price low and make sure to offer lots of free children’s activities, including art and a petting zoo, and of course, the river to play in.
Riverdance Farm itself, like many farms its size, is having a difficult time staying in business by simply selling crops.The owners would like to see their festival be part of helping sustain the farm financially without losing its friendly community feeling. Most of the visitors were not aware of the costs involved in putting on a festival, from the insurance to the health permit fees to the renting of the water-truck and the porta-potties, not to mention the cost of the farmers’ time away from the work of farming. Lashbrook estimates that it would take another few hundred visitors and maybe some more sponsors and paying vendors to turn the Pick and Gather into an income-generating venture.
The UC Small Farm Program’s agritourism project works to help agritourism operators plan successful and profitable agritourism enterprises on their working farms and ranches, and also to help visitors find festivals and other agritourism activities on working farms and ranches. The Small Farm Program website has a wealth of resources for growers evaluating their own potential for agritourism operations and navigating the risk management, business planning, permitting and promotional aspects of the new businesses.
Agritourism is blossoming in California, with farm tours, classes, farm stays, U-pick operations, farm stands and festivals in almost every county. Potential visitors can find a farm or ranch to visit and check the calendar for events at www.calagtour.org, the University of California’s agritourism directory. Farmers and ranchers are invited to list their agritourism operations and events on the site for no charge.