By KELSEY THALHOFER
For the Capital Press
CORVALLIS, Ore.-- While many farmers were pleased to network and navigate policy at the first-ever Oregon Agritourism Summit on Nov. 30, some left frustrated over complex and technical regulations affecting their agritourism businesses.
The event, held in the LaSells Stewart Center at Oregon State University, drew 150 farmers, ranchers and public policy regulators with a variety of backgrounds and goals for the agritourism industry.
Speakers focused on equipping agritourism business owners with the tools to "get to 'yes'" with land-use regulators and move their business forward, and question-and-answer sessions allowed policymakers and the summit's organizers to learn about the specific needs of the state's agritourism business owners.
Melissa Fery, one of the summit's organizers, said that the questions and concerns farmers posed to county leaders got conversation flowing but left an air of frustration lingering as farmers realized that some agritourism businesses would require significant time, collaboration and potential compromises with county regulators.
Many of the issues involved small farms, which can earn a significant portion of their income from agritourism endeavors but often run into more policy barriers because they have less acreage to buffer noisy or disruptive events, which could impact neighboring farms and homes.
Fery said she would like to see this tension pull farmers to a March 1 summit -- which will communicate agritourism business owners' needs and concerns to state and county policymakers.
"I hope they will be motivated to be part of a solution, instead of going home and being angry," she said.
Even the location of a farm could have a major impact on agritourism opportunities. Each county has its own restrictions, and a farm in a rural residential zone may have vastly different limitations than one in a natural resource district.
Though most counties allow farms six events per year, larger farms may host up to 18 additional events by working with their county planning department. For small farmers, restricting the number of farm events can be disappointing.
Narendra Varma, who runs Community by Design, a 58-acre farm co-op -- which includes employees who live and work on the farm, businesses who sell under the co-op's brand and individuals who subscribe to the farm's community supported agriculture program -- in Sherwood, Ore., attended the summit and admitted that he left feeling slightly unsettled, particularly about how regulations affect small farms.
"We all like the image of small farms -- nobody wants to go to a 5,000-acre corn farm for agritourism," he said, "but when regulators come up with rules, they naturally define criteria that favors large operations."
Varma plans to incorporate more educational events and harvest dinners into his farm, but noted that even small events are factored into his six allotted events per year.
"We're small and we're starting off, so six events seems like a lot," he said. Looking to the future, he said, "six could be a number that you'd run into."
Varma hopes the state will join county leaders in working toward a solution with farmers.
"The counties can be more restrictive than the state but they can't be looser," he said, pointing to the passage of Senate Bill 960 in 2011, which gave county leaders the authority to approve agritourism activities. "Clearly the state decided two years ago that they wanted to do agritourism. It's a good start, and I'm sure it will get massaged along the way, like all regulations do."
Many of the summit's speakers noted that a change in attitude -- from both farmers and regulators -- is necessary for agritourism progress.
Clackamas County Commissioner Jim Bernard said collaborating with farmers has demanded changes in legislation, law navigation and attitudes. Bernard, the keynote speaker for the event, has partnered his county's farmers to welcome agritourism and make it a priority. The Milwaukie Sunday farmers' market, co-founded by Bernard, was recently voted the best of 2012 by The Oregonian.
"There are great agritourism ideas out there, and these ideas need a way to flourish," Bernard said, adding that it hasn't been easy to do so in his county. "Getting to 'yes' in Clackamas County has demanded serious commitment from all parties involved," he said.
Speakers at the summit showed the broad range of opportunities available for agritourism business owners. Barb Iverson of Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm in Woodburn, Ore., spoke about how simply opening her colorful fields to the public brought crowds and consumers to her farm.
Scottie Jones shared the story of her Leaping Lamb Farmstay in Alsea, Ore., which currently brings in more revenue than her lamb and hay sales and is so popular as a weekend getaway that Jones often has to turn customers away.
Bob Crouse of Fort Vannoy Farms in Grants Pass, Ore., explained how the downturn of the dairy industry led him to supplement his income with a farm stand, a pumpkin patch, a corn maze, a pumpkin cannon and two zip lines that draw hundreds to his farm each year. He has even added 200 acres this year, though he joked, "there's more money in jack-o'-lanterns than there is in food."
Networking time was built into the summit's schedule, including a complimentary luncheon at round tables. Harlan Shober of Drizzlewood Farm in Molalla, Ore., said the opportunity to learn from experienced agritourism business owners came at an ideal time for him, as he is considering adding a farm stay to his beef, lamb and turkey operation. He was also encouraged by the attitudes of the county planning officials who gave presentations.
"It seems like the county is really trying to make it happen rather than stop it from happening," he said.