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Meet Your Maker

Local Farms and Ranches Offer Hands-On and Up-Close Experiences

Our increasing consciousness about eating healthily and knowing where our food comes from has helped bridge the gap between consumers and the people who produce the food we eat. That said, many “city dwellers” still have a very vague understanding of what daily life is like on farms and ranches.

Cows in pumpkin patch
Fortunately, a growing number of farmers and ranchers worldwide have begun to offer a wide array of innovative opportunities for the public to gain firsthand (and often hands-on) experience, and a better appreciation of the hard work and dedication required to produce the agricultural bounty so many of us have come to take for granted.

This burgeoning agricultural tourism movement, referred to as “agritourism,” is already well established in Europe and growing quickly in the United States—probably nowhere as rapidly as here in the North Bay. It’s a natural fit, as many agritourism opportunities in our area are within an hour’s drive of the major tourist destinations of San Francisco and the Wine Country.

A mere few miles may separate large urban populations from their rural neighbors, but that is often enough distance to keep the two from ever intersecting—if not for these unique offerings. All around our region, farms and ranches have begun to open their barn doors to visitors, seeking to create a greater sense of community.

Our region is home to such a rich and varied collection of artisan food (and drink) producers that agritourism visitors have the opportunity to experience everything from shellfish farming to cheesemaking to olive oil production, and lots in between. Perhaps all in the same day.

The Fork welcome
One story that highlights this trend is the transformation of the Bob Giacomini Dairy into the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company and, most recently, The Fork, a culinary and educational center. Bob and Dean Giacomini purchased the dairy overlooking Tomales Bay in 1959, and ran solely a fluid milk production dairy that grew to over 500 milking cows until the Giacominis’ four grown daughters, not interested in the fluid milk business but wanting to maintain the family farm, came together with a plan. After extensive research, the family hired a renowned cheesemaker, built a creamery facility and the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company was born in 2000.

The popularity of their award-winning Original Blue quickly grew and, as the family developed plans to expand their creamery, they decided to include a “hospitality center” to provide space for on-ranch trade, consumer education, and tastings that “didn’t involve their mother’s living room.” Thus, The Fork was added to the Giacominis’ offerings.

The Fork offers hands-on cooking classes and demonstrations (often led by local celebrity chefs), cheese tastings and cheesemaking classes, as well as a gorgeous event space. Naturally, most events include a meal prepared by The Fork’s executive chef, Jennifer Luttrell (wife of Point Reyes Farmstead’s head cheesemaker, Kuba Hemmerling), and her team using Point Reyes Farmstead’s delicious cheeses, as well as a bounty of other locally sourced products (Upcoming Events at The Fork).

According to Jill Giacomini Basch, one of the four Giacomini sisters who run The Fork and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, The Fork was designed to “create awareness and education on everything happening in the local food movement. All the events begin with an up close and personal educational farm tour where visitors learn about the cows, dairy practices, land stewardship, the commitment to sustainable practices (including creating renewable energy from the farm’s methane digester), family history, day to day operations, and are sometimes lucky enough to witness live births and newborn calves. The goal is that visitors walk away with a better understanding of where, how and by whom artisan food is produced.”

A little farther north from Point Reyes, across the border into Sonoma County, McClelland’s Dairy provides another opportunity for guests to get up close and personal with their food. On a recent visit, Jana McClelland led me on a tour, excitedly relating the farm’s history while pointing out a few of the highlights visitors to the farm can enjoy such as petting calves, viewing the milking parlor, milking a cow by hand and sampling McClelland’s European-style artisan butter.

Jana’s mother, Dora McClelland, had begun inviting the public to the farm decades ago to pick pumpkins, but the family took a 10-year hiatus while the McClelland children were away at school. In the fall of 2011, Jana and her family reopened the seasonal pumpkin patch and added a hay maze, petting farm, large sandbox filled with seed oats, and optional guided farm tours. McClelland’s also offers tours during the weekends in other seasons, including a very popular Mother’s Day brunch and tour. Jana guides many of the tours herself, engaging and educating her guests.

In addition to the local farms, ranches and creameries that directly offer agritourism experiences, many supporting organizations and unique tour operators have taken on the logistics of planning, which allows the producers to more easily enjoy sharing their land and passion for their work with visitors, and still have time to produce.

Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) provides opportunities to “get people out onto the land” and “experience where their food is coming from,” says MALT event and volunteer coordinator Denise Rocco-Zilber. MALT continues to expand its on-farm experiences through including DIY events around cheesemaking, fiber and even a cattle roundup on MALT-protected properties. There is a definite market for these offerings—they almost always sell out.

Relish Culinary Adventures offers customizable tours, dinners and cooking classes on farms throughout Sonoma County. Owner Donna Del Ray emphasizes that “hosting events out at farms is an integral part of who we are. The added dimension of being out on the farm is really special.” There’s nothing quite like dining at a table placed smack dab in the middle of a peach orchard in the middle of summer."

Sonoma County Farm Trails has been promoting local farms and agritourism for the past 40 years. Executive Director Carmen Snyder explained Farm Trails’ role as important to “cultivate new relationships between farmers and the community they feed. We are on the cusp of big changes in order to best serve farmers and the public.” Upcoming events include Dining Along the Farm Trails and Weekend Along the Farm Trails in the fall. Farm Trails also prints a free map and guide with listings of year-round opportunities for the public to experience life on a farm.

West Marin Food and Farm Tours, Elizabeth Hill’s new culinary and educational tour company, takes an innovative approach to getting the public out to farms and meeting producers. Elizabeth has combined her deep connection to West Marin, culinary training and teaching background so that “my tours offer a little something for everyone, even to little kids, because everyone can relate to food.”

Elizabeth says she enjoys “showing people where the real future is for sustainable agriculture.” She adds how important it is to “make this company work for the community and work together with all aspects of tourism to promote different local businesses.” Not only are her tours tasteful and elegant but, in her own words, “the tours are fun and serve a greater purpose to educate the public regarding sustainability and artisan food production.”

And these are just the tip of the iceberg. We encourage you to check out the extensive list of agritourism opportunities and get out there and experience all the agricultural bounty this area has to offer first hand.

By Juliet Braslow

This article first appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Edible Marin & Wine Country.