Feeding Appetites for Learning

Sonoma orchards and farms have long drawn visitors eager to pick apples or collect a dozen farm-fresh eggs. But in recent years, the agritourism trend has exploded, as local farms draw folks from near and far with an ever-expanding list of activities, from guided tours and barn dances to plant sales and pig roasts. The goal is as much “agri-tainment” as it is education, giving city dwellers a peek at the sources of their food.

Tara Smith didn’t set out to be a farmer, much less a vocal proponent of sustainably raised foods. In 2008, Smith and her husband, Craig, were both working in the insurance industry when they happened to read the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.

“I didn’t know anything about food,” Smith said. “I would only shop for what was cheap.”

But after reading the book, “We went into fanatic mode,” she recalled. “All we talked about was how bad food is.”

Fresh eggs get washed by hand and packed in recycled cartons at Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma. (photo by Beth Schlanker)
Fresh eggs get washed by hand and packed in recycled cartons at Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma. (photo by Beth Schlanker)

Convinced that talking wasn’t enough, the Smiths decided to try to make a difference in the way food, particularly meat, is produced. Guided by the principles of Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, considered the guru of rotational grazing, they found a 290-acre former dairy ranch south of Petaluma and launched Tara Firma Farms in 2009.

From day one, Smith knew she wanted to use the farm as an educational tool, so free Saturday tours were introduced immediately. Booths at local farmers markets drew more visitors as Smith promoted the tours: “I didn’t care about selling food. I was handing out flyers.”

As more visitors arrived, however, her food did sell. Soon she had hundreds of families signed up to receive deliveries of sustainably pastured pork, beef, poultry and eggs. Currently, 1,200 members receive regular shipments, and additional customers stop by the farm store to buy meat and other locally produced foods.

Tourists from around the world have visited the farm, as well as school kids from down the road. Children, especially, love Tara Firma, Smith said. “The animals and the space are all the entertainment they need. Kids love nature because they don’t get enough of it.”

Such a hands-on introduction to life on the “beyond organic” farm where the Smiths live with their youngest son is critical, she said. “We need to open up our farms,” Smith said. “People don’t know enough about where their food comes from.”

Interns make lunch in their house at Green String Farm in Petaluma. (photo by Beth Schlanker)
Interns make lunch in their house at Green String Farm in Petaluma. (photo by Beth Schlanker)

On the opposite side of Petaluma, in the shadow of Sonoma Mountain, Bob Cannard carries out his own mission to educate and inform. In the late 1990s, Cannard, a former Santa Rosa Junior College instructor, collaborated with winemaker Fred Cline to switch Cline’s vineyards to natural-process farming, a practice that blends the best of organic and biodynamic agriculture. They soon established the Green String Institute, and Green String Farm, on 140 acres of former dairy land.

The goal is to inform the next generation of farmers through internship programs that attract students from across the globe. They live in Green String housing while they learn all aspects of farming, from fixing tools to metal working, and the intricacies of natural-process agriculture, which focuses on feeding the soil to nourish the plants.

Green String Farm offers free tours every Saturday, but visitors are welcome to stop by anytime.
Green String Farm offers free tours every Saturday, but visitors are welcome to stop by anytime.

Students also run the farm store, where just-picked produce is sold to regular customers, local chefs and motorists passing by on busy Adobe Road.

Cannard conducts regular workshops for students at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, but it’s the average folks that he is most keen to attract.

“This is about education,” he said. “The primary purpose of the farm is social contact through the food we produce.”

Free tours of Green String Farm take place every Saturday, so that people “have a better understanding of how and why we grow stuff,” Cannard said. “Natural-process agriculture is very simple.”

Student-planned events, including a spring plant sale, are held four times a year, yet impromptu visits are also encouraged. People are welcome to wander the farm at any time.

Reflecting on the growing popularity of farm visits in Sonoma, Cannard credited the advent of farmers markets, which first gave the public the opportunity to meet the people who grow their food. “That was really the beginning of agritourism,” he said.

In fair weather or rain, visitors can tour the McEvoy gardens by appointment, enjoying the lush coastal hills west of Petaluma. (photo by John Burgess)
In fair weather or rain, visitors can tour the McEvoy gardens by appointment, enjoying the lush coastal hills west of Petaluma. (photo by John Burgess)

Agritourism probably wasn’t on Nan McEvoy’s mind when she purchased the old Morelli dairy farm outside Petaluma in 1990. Rather, the San Francisco publishing heiress was seeking a rural retreat for her family.

The 550-acre property was zoned for agriculture, so McEvoy had to find an agricultural use for the land in order to make any improvements. A big fan of Tuscan olive oil, she decided to plant 80 acres of olive trees on her ranch, in spite of much nay-saying from local agricultural experts.

“Nan has such a pioneering spirit,” Jill Lee, manager of events and community relations at the ranch, said with a laugh. McEvoy brought in an Italian olive oil expert, and 18,000 Tuscan olive trees — Frantoio, Lecino, Pendolino and other varieties — were planted on the rolling hills.

“Nan and a handful of others are the founding fathers and mothers of this industry,” Lee said.

Potted olive starts at McEvoy Ranch will someday yield fruit. The family cat is attempting to help the process.
Potted olive starts at McEvoy Ranch will someday yield fruit. The family cat is attempting to help the process.

McEvoy Ranch olive oil is so popular that other products have been introduced: olive-oil-based body-care items and a line of wines made from grapes grown on and off the ranch.

As public curiosity about the Red Hill Road olive orchards grew, garden tours were introduced.

“We brought in a caterer for lunches prepared with a lot of things grown in the garden,” Lee said. “Five or six years ago, we started to showcase other components of the ranch.”

Visitors now enjoy seasonal pruning classes, yoga workshops, wreath-making classes and family-friendly fun such as bocce and tastings of fresh-pressed cider made from apples grown on the ranch.

“We get people from all over the place, not just local,” Lee said. “Education is a big component of what we do. Most people don’t know that much about olive oil. Knowing where your food comes from is the No. 1 benefit. Seeing the property is so important, I believe.”

While visitors are sometimes surprised that the remote location of McEvoy Ranch precludes cellphone service, “Somehow they survive,” Lee said with a smile.

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