EDITORIAL: Farm, ranch voices needed on tourism possibilities

Any effort to bring more tourists – and their money – to Malheur County warrants attention. The nascent plans to more fully establish agritourism here needs help to become reality.

The idea of agritourism is not new but state tourism officials are putting fresh efforts into establishing such programs. As a result, the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association is working with locales throughout eastern Oregon, including here in Malheur County.

This is fueled in part by the growing public interest in knowing more about where food comes from. For producers, whether beef ranchers or asparagus farmers, that’s good news. Agritourism offers the chance to set the record straight about just what goes on in the barn or out in the field.

Officials with local chambers are chewing over how to build an agritourism program. The discussion so far is focused on creating a farm loop – a driving tour that takes people from farm to farm. This would be a cross-border effort to include producers over in Idaho, which makes sense given the density of farmers across the river.

Key questions need to be addressed. The prime one: How interested are producers? So far, they haven’t been engaged in the local discussion. If the idea is to give them new customers, let’s find out the potential. Would the marketing effort produce measurable increases in sales? What would it take for farmers and ranchers here to participate? Setting out cartons of eggs in an old refrigerator won’t cut it.

A second question: Who are likely customers? Will people from Ontario and Vale take guests on a long drive through the country to sample berries and buy fresh corn? What would entice them to do so? And what would it take to interest those stopping in Malheur County for other purposes to head out on a farm loop?

Well done, farm loops can be successful for both vendors and consumers. One of the best known is the Hood River loop, where orchards provide an entertaining day of sampling and buying.

But as those questions are considered, tourism promoters ought to consider helping the Ontario Saturday Market grow. Here, consumers and producers come together in one place. The market has grown in recent years, with 28 vendors last weekend who attracted 250 people. That’s a strong start, but what will draw the farmers and ranchers to take on the work of a market is to know they will have a solid customer base. No farmer wants to sit in a booth with boxes of berries that might not sell.

As the Saturday Market continues to grow, customers coming to Ontario would seem to be prime targets for trying a farm loop.

No new venture comes easy. The handful of people considering agritourism should be applauded for at least trying. They should be joined now by the farm and ranch industries to partner in a way to make better use of what we already have plenty of – a successful, productive ag industry. — LZ