John Bourdon, owner of Sandstone Distillery in Thurston County, admits that his business may be a bit off the beaten path. Halfway between Tenino and I-5 as the bird flies, he doesn’t get much random drop-in traffic.
“We’re a destination. You just don’t go to our place accidentally,” he laughs. “We’re a mile up a dead end road.”
Running the business for a little over a year now, Bourdon says he has to rely on exposure to get business. That means social media, motorist information signs on the freeway, general word of mouth and — oh — making a really good gin.
There’s one more way, though, that he’s hoping to gain traction. Bourdon is one of the first business owners to cling on to Thurston County’s agritourism initiative, which seeks to bolster the rural region’s economy with an influx of visitors hunting for that authentic farm experience.
You know, hipsters.
Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero explains she was moved to help the region’s farms before they are forgotten and lost to time. Farmers are aging out, land is getting expensive and it’s getting harder and harder for new farmers to enter the market. Since 1975, the county has lost over 75 percent of its working agricultural lands, and in a five-year period from 2002 to 2007, it has lost 50 percent of the remaining farmland, according to the Washington State University Thurston County Extension.
“It’s alarming to see the amount of farmland that was lost. Being able to help farmers stay in business all year round is really on our mind. We want them to make money,” she says. “We can get people off of I-5, we can entice them. We have so much to offer in Thurston County.”
Right now, all the pieces are falling into place to finally make agritourism take off.
In October of 2013, the county created the agritourism overlay district. The purpose of the district is as simple as it is important, if the county’s initiative is going to gain any traction. Essentially, it opens up what landowners can do in the region. It permits larger breweries and wineries, it makes it easier for farms to host you-pick and other seasonal operations and it allows for temporary and short-term uses without needing a permit.
Annie Salafsky, co-owner of the 50-acre Helsing Junction Farm in Rochester, says she’s already doing everything she can to attract people and create exposure: a music festival co-hosted by Olympia’s K Records, an open house featuring harvesting and tour opportunities, a strawberry festival, you-pick, a farm-to-table dinner with Pair Restaurant in Seattle and, as of a few years ago, weddings. A “canning camp” is also in the works.
“We try to have a good time down here,” she says.
The agritourism overlay district could make it easier for Salafsky to host events like these and more — especially weddings and tours. As a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, she notes, it could help put Helsing Junction Farm on the map and bolster its list of members.
She explains that the setting the farm offers is a unique experience that you can’t get in the city.
“People really love the music festival. It’s an important part of Thurston County. It’s just really pretty. There are great vibes. The river’s right here. One time, this tame deer came in and it was magical,” she recalls.
To funnel visitors to farms and businesses like Helsing Junction, the Bountiful Byway — a 60-mile horseshoe-shaped scenic route that winds its way through Yelm, Tenino, Rainier, Bucoda, Grand Mound, Rochester and Littlerock — was established in October of 2014. There are more than 90 suggested agricultural, ecological and cultural stops. Using signs and maps, it gives direction to tourists, and most closely resembles the “Fruit Loop” in Hood River County in Oregon, which also highlights wineries, orchards, farms and other businesses.
Last, and not least, is that the agritourism now has a funding source. In the past few years, it was a spare bones project — just a pile of dreams and ideas and some active community members. This year, through a memorandum of understanding with the county, the Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater Visitor and Convention Bureau is officially taking over the project and will roll out a new map, new marketing efforts and a business membership program.
The membership program will help shape what the Bountiful Byway looks like. While the route is already in place, it’s currently hard to judge where, exactly, visitors should go. There are lots of farms, but which ones have retail stands or you-pick or events or activities to partake in? Essentially, business members (not all of which are farms) will signal that they are open for business and that they have something to offer for agritourists.
Shauna Stewart, executive director of the Visitor and Convention Bureau, says business outreach has just started. As of press time, around 10 applications had been submitted in the last few weeks, and she anticipates more as the effort and the momentum grows. She expects to have enough businesses in the next month or two to have a map to build around.
Will too many businesses boggle the casual visitor? Stewart doesn’t think so.
“I think there are easy, nice user friendly ways of displaying a large variety and a large selection. We want membership to grow. We want it to be compelling. (We want to) give people a reason to stay overnight. We don’t foresee too much product being a problem,” she explains.
Salafsky believes agritourism can do a lot to not only bring visitors to rural Thurston County, but to put the “local” back in local farms.
“It’s really important to keep local farms in the forefront of people’s minds,” she says. “I think with all the access to local produce and all these different venues these days, [such as] big box stores, people don’t know that there’s a difference from buying from a farm and buying from a store.”
That’s because, she continues, a word is missing from the popular “buy local” movement.
“It’s a corruptible message,” Salafsky laments. “The original message was ‘buy direct and local,’ but somehow the direct piece was dropped. You can buy local at Fred Meyer. McDonald’s says they make food with local ingredients. [The word “local”] has a lot of cache, currency. People want to support [local farms]. Now they’re sort of being hoodwinked, almost, by all these big companies that say they’re doing this. In turn, they’re actually robbing customers, a lot of them.”
Customers can better help farms by buying directly from the source, at the farmstand or through CSA, she says. That way, farms — and more specifically, small farms that don’t rely on sheer volume of sales — can make more money. When going through wholesale, a percentage of the sale is taken by the wholesaler and a percentage is taken by the retail store, often leaving little left for the farm.
“By buying direct you’re giving the farmer a reasonable wage,” she explains.
Back at Sandstone, where the tasting room comprises 60 percent of sales, Bourdon says the best way to get lifelong customers is by having them walk through the door. Agritourism, he believes, will allow people to develop a more intimate bond, not just with his distillery, but the region as a whole.
“The tasting room allows us to look someone in the eye, share our story, our history of our distillery and how it came to be, share the distillery itself,” he says. “When people come here to visit, they feel like they become part of it. They walk away feeling they have some ownership, you know what I mean?”