STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Hare Ranch stretches out across 400 acres of irrigated pasture, aspen groves and forest east of Pagosa Springs. It’s a property that Ken Hare and his 11 family members never could imagine selling.
“We want to figure out how to make our ranching operation be self-sustaining to keep it in family,” Hare said.
One of the options he’s looking at is agritourism.
“I think agritourism makes sense for smaller family ranches,” he said. “We want to let it be passed on (to younger generations) without being developed.”
Several local ranchers also are looking at the burgeoning agritourism industry to boost their bottom line and diversify their business, many so they can keep their ranches around for the next generation.
The word ‘agritourism’ covers a broad range of activities, but generally is understood as the practice of inviting people onto a farm, ranch or other agricultural operation to experience how that food (or drink) is produced. The focus is on local, fresh and unique products and authentic cultural experiences.
For his ranch, Hare is considering catering to visitors who would stay on the ranch for a week or two and experience activities including branding, fixing fences and irrigating. He also has thought of opening the property to hunters and fisherman or hosting wedding parties at the ranch’s historic dairy barn.
Many local cattle ranches won’t support huge numbers of cattle, so they have to find other ways to supplement their income, Hare said.
Betty Shahan is looking at agritourism for the same reason. Shahan, who is close to 76 years old, had to hire helpers because of a recent back injury. It’s a cost she said is hard to keep paying.
“We’re just trying to keep our head above water,” Shahan said. “Ranching is really, really hard.”
She would like to bring in people to fish, hike, bird watch and snowmobile on the land. She said she is drawn to agritourism as a source of revenue that doesn’t create the kind of degradation on her land that previous drilling operations did.
Lois Higgins, a rancher west of Pagosa Springs, already has received requests from people who want to visit.
“You don’t think of yourself as being a novelty, but for folks coming in from the city, I guess we are,” said Higgins, who co-owns GrassRoots Meats.
She likes the idea of diversifying the company’s offerings through agritourism events.
“I think it would just take the business to another level and give us greater exposure to our customer base,” she said.
James Ranch, north of Durango, has become a model of successful agritourism locally, and while the James’ motivation wasn’t profit-oriented, business certainly has benefited from their endeavors, said Cynthia James Stewart. Stewart owns the Harvest Grill and Greens at James Ranch, which is one of several ventures, including garden tours and an on-site market, that aim to attract visitors to the ranch.
“It started with a motive to bring people here and educate them about the way we farm,” Stewart said. “But once they come to the land and see what we’re doing, they get excited and want to participate in buying the product.”
“I can’t say that it isn’t helping us, by any means,” she said. “It benefits everyone as a whole.”
But starting up an agritourism venture on top of a business that consumes much more than 40 hours a week is a daunting task, local ranchers said. Especially when the initial work is still speculative.
“Most all of us are in a position where we can’t jump out and hire people for something we don’t know is going to be successful,” Higgins said. “But we don’t really have the time to start it ourselves.”
Marketing these experiences also is a challenge, especially for small farmers who don’t have that expertise, she said.
The Internet makes everything “extremely competitive,” Hare said.
Before he goes much further, Hare said he plans to visit the small business development center to create a business plan and determine if he could make agritourism a viable enterprise.
Several pockets in Colorado are standing out as leaders and models in the agritourism industry, said Judy Walden, president of Walden Mills Group, which is helping the state’s agritourism program craft a strategic plan.
Steamboat Springs has an agricultural alliance that works on a variety of initiatives, including tours of local ranches, and the city of Boulder organizes Saturday tours of local farms. Ranchers in southeast Colorado have found opportunities in hosting bird-watchers on their ranches while Delta County has built up a diverse network of local farmers and artists who open their doors to tourists almost year-round.
Colorado started its agritourism program in 2009, and it is the only state that has a dedicated funding stream for such a program, Walden said.
“We’re being pulled by consumers who want to know where their food comes from,” she said. “Three times a day you have a chance to connect with a place through the taste of the food.”