Local farms, restaurants chew on agritourism opportunities

SIERRA VISTA — Mesquite cookies and breads for sale in a hotel lobby, tours of a sheep farm and lessons on cooking with chile peppers.

Local farmers, store owners and chefs looked at these examples and others as ways to work together and promote agritourism in Southeastern Arizona.
Food and tourism professionals met Thursday at Tasting Arizona, a workshop to help promote agritourism and locally produced foods in Arizona by the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University.
“We’re moving from a service economy to an experiential economy,” said Claudia Jurowski, a professor from the School of Hotel              and Restaurant Management at NAU who also spoke about agritourism opportunities and marketing ideas.
“Today, consumers want an experience, something that engages and improves them,” Jurowski said.
“The more senses that are used, the more memorable the experience will be.”
Jurowski said businesses should work together to “package” the different services and products they offer.
“Design a weekend trip that includes visiting a winery, a sheep farm and cooking lessons,” she said.
Donald Libasci, executive chef at Adobe Southwestern Cuisine, said he enjoyed getting to meet with local producers face to face and  plans to collaborate with some of them by using beans, goat cheese, pecans and other foods at the restaurant.
Although nearly all the ingredients he uses are delivered from Tucson, he wants to use more locally produced, high-quality foods and promote local farms. He said he has already seen  success from a locally produced wine called Night Owl that’s been popular with customers at Adobe who enjoy bird watching.
“I want to use healthy and more natural products,” he said, including Arizona Cactus Ranch’s organic prickly pear nectar, which he would use for his prickly pear margarita and dressing.
Libasci also would like to begin a grower’s dinner using locally produced ingredients and inviting growers to his restaurant so customers can meet them, he said.
Natalie McGee, owner of Arizona Cactus Ranch in Green Valley, often sells her prickly pear products at local farmer’s markets, but she would like to see more sanitation and standardization at farmer’s markets in the state.
McGee  and  members  of the Bisbee Farmer’s Market and Sierra Vista Farmer’s Market spoke about ideas to improve farmer’s markets and  hope  to  create  standards for the markets in the state.
Although there has been an 8 percent annual growth in farmer’s markets in the nation, six out of 10 farmer’s markets fail, said Russell Tronstad, a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension agent who spoke about the features of successful agritourism.
One of challenges facing many agritourism businesses is getting noticed by the public, and the Internet has become one of the best ways to get noticed, he said.
Tronstad also introduced the participants to www.farmdirectory.org, an online database for farm producers to list their product availability.
Having  good  Web  presence was a concern for many of the business owners in attendance, including Connie and Dan Finck, owners of the Copper Queen Hotel.
They try to promote agritourism activities with their Web site, but are still looking for ways to improve it and collaborate with local food producers, Connie Finck said.
Kathy Visser, of Visser Family Farms near Willcox, produces grass-fed lamb and has participated with tours of her farm was also looking for more ways to work with restaurants and others         farms.
Nathan Watkins, of San Ysidro Farm in McNeal, also produces grass-fed lamb and said his farm is doing well.
“Demand is outpacing our supply. People have found  us and they like our product,” Watkins said.
Clinton Gray, from Gray’s Garden of Eden in Palominas, hoped to supply vegetables to restaurants after the workshop, including  Adobe.
His farm offers U-pick vegetables and a store. He began selling his vegetables at the Sierra Vista Farmer’s Market last year when he experienced a drop in business as gas prices began to rise, he said.
John Gleige, an attorney from Flagstaff, spoke with workshop participants about the legal aspects of agritourism, said businesses should “be preventative” and minimize risks to customers, such as warning customers if peanuts are an ingredient in something they are serving.
He often sees new agritourism business making the mistakes of bad record keeping and mismanaging employees.
“Talk to a lawyer and an accountant first,” he said. “I wouldn’t take my own appendix out, so why would I start anything without having knowledge of it?”
Valerie McCaffrey, manager of Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture, said local food and tourism businesses should capitalize on the areas offerings, such as birding, astronomy and the local history to promote agritourism in Southeastern Arizona.
“We all have to work together on this,” she said.
Many participants said they also hope to work with local  chambers  of  commerce and tourism commissions to promote agritourism.
Tasting Arizona workshops also will be held in Tucson, Show Low and Page Springs this month.
herald/review reporter Laura  Ory can be reached at 515-4683 or by e-mail at laura.ory@svherald.com.

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