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Saturday, February 24, 2024
Feb. 24, 2024

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Agritourism is growing across Yakima Valley and the state … just don’t call it that

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YAKIMA _ Visitors to the Yakima Valley and other regions of Washington may not want to hear the term “agritourism,” but they sure do like visiting farms, observing the food-growing operations and eating or drinking the end result.

Whatever it’s called, the quest to sample locally sourced food and beverages and learn about how they are produced is popular with Washingtonians visiting from other parts of the state and visitors from elsewhere, tourism industry officials say.

Agritourism and other travel issues and trends were discussed Tuesday through Thursday as the Yakima Convention and Event Center hosted the State of Washington Tourism Conference.

More than 300 attendees were registered for at least one of the event’s three days, organizers said, and at least 200 of those attended breakout sessions and the keynote address on Wednesday at the convention and event center.

The latter, given by American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association CEO Sherry Rupert, addressed the issues and opportunities for tourism businesses owned and operated by Indigenous people across the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.

Rupert expressed the optimism of many in the large conference room as she noted the pent-up demand for travel and authentic cultural and historic experiences coming out of the COVID pandemic.

“It’s a prime time for Indigenous tourism because people are wanting to travel again,” she said. “You can’t experience this nation without experiencing the First Peoples of this nation.”

Agritourism defined

Topics addressed at the tourism conference’s breakout sessions included a variety of marketing issues, the importance of welcoming visitors from all walks of life, and several Thursday panel discussions on responsible outdoor travel and recreation.

The agritourism session was moderated by John Cooper, president and CEO of Yakima Valley Tourism, and it included comments from a tourism marketing director (Steve Shively of the Olympic Culinary Loop), a farm-to-table website director (Maressa Valliant of Bellingham-based Sustainable Connections and Eat Local First) and a local farmer (Shelley Desmarais, co-owner of CLS Farms near Moxee).

Cooper introduced the topic with a presentation noting the large number of farms throughout Washington. Yakima County has the most farms of any of the state’s 39 counties with 2,952.

He said farms in Yakima County and the state overall have increased their production of organic crops in the past decade-plus, with 93% of organic apples, 91% of organic cherries and 81% of organic pears in the U.S. grown in Washington.

The state’s farms also have embraced the rise in agritourism in five main areas: education, direct sales, hospitality, entertainment and outdoor recreation.

These areas include everything from U-pick opportunities and direct sales to visitors who tour farms, hiking trails and corn mazes, and even more extensive outdoor recreation such as horseback riding and snowshoeing, Cooper said.

Several wineries in Yakima County and across the state offer opportunities to stomp on grapes, tour the vineyards, enjoy food ranging from charcuterie boards to fine dining, and take in concerts, yoga, wedding receptions and other special events. All of this is in addition to tasting and purchasing wine, he said.

“It’s all about how you distinguish and position yourself to make your operation different than others,” Cooper added. “For the Yakima Valley … we’re wine country and the home of craft beverages. It’s a foundation of what we do.”

Just don’t call all those activities at farms, wineries and breweries agritourism, Cooper and Sustainable Connection’s Valliant stressed.

“Don’t use the phrase ‘agritourism’ with the general public,” Cooper said. “Share the sizzle — the essence of your destination, region or event.”

“Nobody likes being called a tourist,” Valliant said, adding that her organization’s website, eatlocalfirst.org, helps visitors find dining options in all of Washington’s counties and regions, allowing them to fit in with the locals.

Safety and impact of farm visitors

Desmarais, the Moxee-based hops farmer, described her family’s fifth-generation hop farming operation and organic fruit farm. She explained how “agri-experiences” can benefit local farmers, especially those with an on-site store or a farmers market booth.

CLS Farms welcomes hop buyers and other craft beer enthusiasts to tour their site, but not all farmers are willing to welcome the public for visits. Tourism-related activities take away from farmers’ valuable time during harvest season and need to be worth it.

She noted the importance of balancing farm operations with public experiences and safety; seasonal variations in both indoor and outdoor activities; and making sure visits add value to the farm and its products.

“Farms need to establish a safety protocol and visitor policy for those who come to visit,” Desmarais added. “Not everybody has the desire to connect (with visitors). Some farmers like to be on the down-low and just do their job, which is farming!”

Both Shively and Cooper noted the need for agritourism initiatives and operations to respect the property and wishes of their neighbors, especially as local government regulations try to catch up with new opportunities in rural areas.

Cooper referred to the Yakima County Planning Commission’s lengthy discussion and deliberation of agritourism rules during the winter and spring of 2022, as the county addressed issues such as food service and lodging at wineries, breweries and other agritourism businesses.

“Many of our counties are having to deal with updating county regulations,” Cooper said.

Yakima County Commissioner Kyle Curtis, who served on the planning commission in 2022 as it addressed agritourism regulations, attended Wednesday’s breakout session on the topic.

Curtis told the Yakima Herald-Republic that the revised rules would be placed on a county board of commissioners agenda in the near future.

Indigenous-owned tourism businesses

The keynote speaker, AIANTA’s CEO Rupert, is a member of the Paiute/Washoe tribe in Nevada whose late father used to live in Moxee, so she is familiar with Yakima County.

The group recently celebrated its 25th anniversary in Oklahoma and changed the event’s name to the American Indigenous Tourism Conference.

Among the benefits of Indigenous tourism is how it honors the traditions and values of America’s Native people, Rupert said. It allows them to provide the history and education about their traditions, their lands and the flora and fauna of those lands.

“It’s important that we are educating others about our culture and using our own voices to tell our own stories,” she said.

Indigenous tourism provides an economic boost to its communities, too. Rupert noted that in 2019 — before COVID imposed restrictions on tribal areas and travel — there were 120,859 Native-owned businesses in the tourism sector.

Those businesses provided nearly 189,000 jobs across the U.S. and had $14 billion in economic impact, she added. Many of their visitors come from Europe and other international markets.

“The international market is one area AIANTA is really focused on,” Rupert said, adding that foreign visitors to Indigenous-owned tourism businesses have begun to rebound from 2020’s steep decline.

During COVID, many tribes shut down their borders to protect elderly members from the virus and also protect the employees of tribal businesses such as casinos and resorts.

In Washington state, AIANTA is focusing on partnerships with the State of Washington Tourism organization, national organizations such as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, and national parks including Mount Rainier.

“National parks are among the top attractions visitors want to see, and there are six tribes, including the Yakama Nation, that have called Mount Rainier home,” Rupert said.

Her tourism organization also has or is pursuing partnerships with organizations in California, Minnesota, Nevada and North Dakota.

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