PAT MEADE AND JON ROBBINS: West Valley Alpacas
Esparto, CA – A few years after Pat Meade and her husband, Jon Robbins began raising alpacas on their ranch in 1994, they were standing at their small booth at the annual Almond Festival in the Capay Valley. A representative of the UCDavis Small Farm Center wandered by with a video camera and asked if they’d mind being interviewed. They agreed, but Meade let her husband answer all the questions.
A year later, Meade was invited to a luncheon sponsored by the Woodland Chamber of Commerce. UC Davis Small Farm Center director Desmond Jolly made a presentation, and showed the video for which Robbins and Meade had been interviewed. Meade recalls that the video was interesting – it focused on the many interesting agricultural activities in Yolo County – but she was awful. “Jon did all the talking and I was gazing at him with a grimaced smile. I looked like Nancy Reagan,” says Meade. At that point, she decided to put aside her reticent ways and do more talking about her alpacas and the small business she was building around them.
Meade and Robbins manage an alpaca herd that ranges from 11 to as many as 30 animals. They breed the alpacas, all of whom have names, and sell them occasionally and “reluctantly”, says Meade. They’ve built a small shop, where Meade, a fiber artist, sells alpaca fiber, supplies, as well as her and others’ creations, including sweaters, scarves, gloves toys, and blankets. She also teaches spinning, weaving and knitting. They rent out some of their 80 acres to other farmers who grow tomatoes, and sell fruit from their small orange grove.
At the luncheon, Jolly introduced the concept of an agritourism map for Yolo, Solano and Napa counties. He invited Meade to participate. “We sent them information, and lo and behold, a map came out. I went to the map unveiling, and we were on it.”
Literally and figuratively, the 2003 publication put West Valley Alpacas on the map, along with 90 other agritourism destinations in Napa, Yolo and Solano counties. “It has given me publicity that I could never afford to buy,” says Meade. She, Robbins and their alpacas were featured on KVIE-TV’s California Heartland, in the Sacramento Bee and in the Davis Enterprise.
The map has also resulted in small and large groups from as far away as Redding, Chico and the San Francisco Bay Area visiting the ranch. Reluctant no more, Meade gives them an entertaining tour of the ranch and the shop.
Last year, Meade was one of 17 women featured in another Small Farm Center publication, “Outstanding in their Fields: California’s Women Farmers”. More publicity followed, with Meade appearing Capital Public Radio’s Insight interview/talk show, and more newspaper articles.
About the time that Jolly was presenting the case for the Harvest Trails map, he and others in UC Cooperative Extension realized that the small farm owners who wanted to take advantage of the growing interest in agriculture needed a how-to manual. More than 85 percent of Californians live in cities of one million people, cut off from any engagement or understanding about the source of their food, clothing, or water. Providing more access to agriculture results in added income for farmers, outings for people who live in urban and suburban areas, and helps preserve ag land. In the long run, it also educates urban dwellers, who affect agriculture policies through their votes.
“Agritourism and Nature Tourism in California: A How-To Manual for Farmers and Ranchers”, partly funded by an RREA grant, came out in 2002.
“When we started the working group,” to produce the manual, says Holly George, UC Cooperative Extension’s county director in Plumas-Sierra counties, “there were bits and pieces of information about regulations, permits, etc., but not anything in one place. We’re not trying to be a Pollyanna about this – agritourism is not something for everybody. This manual helps people evaluate it, and go through the steps of starting agritourism on their land.”
“It’s been very well received,” says George. That’s an understatement. The 2002 manual sold out in six months. The Small Farm Center did two more printings; 1,500 copies were sold. Since the manual was updated in 2000, more than 600 copies have been purchased. Farm trails maps exist for several counties, including Amador, Mendocino, El Dorado, Sonoma, Stanislaus, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Lake and Calaveras counties, plus several regions, including Apple Hill, the Russian River and the Silverado Trail.
Pat Meade bought a manual, and was one of more than 900 farm owners who have attended agritourism and nature tourism workshops over the last few years.
Meade’s derived an added benefit. Through the map, the book, and the meetings, she met other small farm owners in Solano and Yolo counties. “I’ve been inspired by them. I’m now thinking of doing other things,” she says. So far, she’s added chickens, for egg production, and is planning on adding bees and a small market garden.
When Meade and Robbins bought the ranch and started raising alpacas, both had other full-time jobs off the ranch. Their dream was to work full-time on the ranch. Meade was able to leave her job in 1999 and devote all her time to breeding and raising alpacas, and managing the shop and her classes. Partly from their involvement with the Small Farm Center, they think they’ll able to take the next step so that the ranch can support Robbins as well.
-- by Jane Stevens