SALEM — Audrey Comerford was coordinating school tours for the annual harvest festival at Bauman’s Farm and Garden in Gervais, Ore., when she realized the full impact of agritourism.
Comerford remembers a young boy, about a second-grader, who came to visit the 400-acre family farm north of Salem. Inside the animal barn, he saw a Jersey calf that was brought over from a nearby dairy, and had no idea what it was.
“He looked at it, and he goes, ‘What is it?’” Comerford said. “He had no name for it. He couldn’t even guess.”
Comerford didn’t think much about it at first, but then a dozen or so different kids asked the exact same question over the next several weeks — one of them even thought it was a deer, she said. It served as a reminder of just how far removed generations have come from farming and ranching. As of 2008, less than 2% of the U.S. population is directly employed in agriculture.
“That’s where it clicked for me,” Comerford said. “The educational component (of agritourism) is so important for the general public.”
Comerford now works as the agritourism coordinator for Oregon State University Extension Service, serving Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties in the Mid-Willamette Valley. She was hired in September 2019, replacing Mary Stewart, who retired earlier in the year.
Agritourism is a bit of a nebulous term. There is no universally accepted definition or list of approved activities, which can make it difficult for farmers to know what they can and cannot do on their property.
Comerford’s job is to work with farms, county planners and local tourism organizations to help make connections and answer questions.
In general, agritourism falls into 1 of 5 categories: direct sales, entertainment, hospitality, education and outdoor recreation. Events might include weddings, concerts and festivals, or it can be as simple as having a farmstand or U-pick orchard to sell fresh fruit and produce directly to consumers.
“A lot of farms are having to go that way, selling directly to consumers because the prices of crops are remaining the same or dropping,” Comerford said. “This is a great way to get more revenue out of it, and then also provide great food connections for the public.”
Comerford grew up surrounded by thousands of acres of grass seed farms in Rickreall, Ore. Both of her parents also worked for OSU Extension Service. Her father, Richard Regan, was a horticulture professor and extension agent for the university, and her mother, Eileen Regan, did community education and outreach for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Comerford earned her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in photography from OSU in 2015. She spent four seasons working for Bauman’s Farm and Garden, a diversified family farm that has become one of the largest agritourism operations in Marion County.
According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, Oregon had 481 farms that made more than $16 million in income from agritourism and recreational services in 2017, compared to 576 farms and $10.6 million in 2012. That is a little more than 1% of all farms statewide.
The picture locally is a little less clear. Since joining OSU Extension Service, Comerford estimated she works with somewhere between 250 and 300 farms across the three counties, which includes vineyards and wine tasting rooms.
Comerford said she hopes to complete a full inventory of agritourism in the area over the next few years. A study was done in Marion County from 2017 to 2018. It looked at 75 agritourism operations, though studies have never been done for Polk and Yamhill counties.
A national survey of agritourism led by the University of Vermont and supported by OSU is also making the rounds. Comerford said the data should give a more complete picture of what agritourism looks like, and how organizations like OSU Extension can help. Surveys are due by Jan. 31.
“I think more farms are looking to add (agritourism), or add another agritourism piece, but may not necessarily know how to go about doing it,” Comerford said, adding that confusion over state and county regulations is the number one concern.
Agritourism can be an intimidating subject, Comerford said, but farmers should not be scared off by the word.
“Agritourism does not mean busloads of people are coming and walking all over farmland or agricultural land,” she said.
“It very much is a broad term that encompasses a lot. I would love to see more farms playing a role in educating the public by having them come onto their farm.”