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Agritourism bus tour shows local officials possibilities

By Hugh Fisherhfisher@salisburypost.com
The future of farming lies not only in fruits and vegetables, but in knowledge and experiences waiting to be gained.
Friday’s agritourism bus tour for area officials, sponsored by N.C. Cooperative Extension and the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, gave area leaders a chance to see how Rowan already leads the way in a multibillion-dollar industry.
“Agritourism is one of the most popular (tourism) activities,” Darrell Blackwelder, Cooperative Extension agent for horticulture, said.
That includes destinations with animal attractions as well as agricultural and farming sites.
Both sides of that new tourism economy were represented as the bus tour took some 30 officials to Cauble Creek Vineyard, Lazy 5 Ranch and Patterson Farm.
At each location, attendees took part in activities and learned about the site’s impact on the local economy, as well as its role as a statewide tourism draw.
Blackwelder told leaders that 1,500 Rowan County jobs come from agritourism.
“We have the No. 1 field trip destination in the state, Dan Nicholas Park,” he said. “Lazy 5 Ranch is third and Patterson Farm is 19th.”
Those locations draw thousands every year to the county, with a corresponding boost to the local economy.
“It’s a thing we need to recognize,” Blackwelder said. “Agriculture and tourism are an industry that’s continuing to grow.”
That’s the reason for the tour: to give people in positions of authority an up-close-and-personal view of the reasons why those thousands come to Rowan County.
Among attendees were local elected officials and representatives from N.C. Cooperative Extension, the Rowan Chamber of Commerce and the Rowan County Tourism Tourism Authority.
Carl Ford, chairman of the Rowan County commissioners, participated in the event as did commissioners Raymond Coltrain and Jon Barber.
“I wish more people would become educated in agriculture,” Coltrain said during the tour. “We take this for granted, which we are blessed to be able to do.”
At the tour’s first stop, William Yost, owner of Cauble Creek Vineyards, showed how his enterprise is still growing ó literally.
The muscadine grapes being established there will eventually lead to local marketing of grape products and possibly a small winemaking operation, he said.
But some time is still needed: “It takes four years to get grapes established,” Yost said.
He began his enterprise in 2006 with a view toward long-term growth of the industry.
“My philosophy is, let’s create something that’s going to be here in 15 to 20 years,” Yost said. “Our thinking has got to be long-term, not short-term.”
At the Lazy 5 Ranch, the group took a wagon ride through the park to see the wildlife on display, including giraffes, antelope, wildebeests and a white rhinoceros.
Granite Quarry Mayor Mary Ponds said the tour gave her a greater awareness of the beauty that can be found locally.
“A lot of people have no idea that all this is even here,” Ponds said.
At Patterson Farm, the focus was local food production and the legacy of local farming.
The third-generation family farm was established in 1919.
Blackwelder said that a new emphasis on food ó where it comes from, and whether or not it’s safe ó is also driving an interest in small farm operations.
“People are interested in eating local,” Blackwelder said.
For Michelle and Doug Patterson of Patterson Farm, that local focus might be a way out of tough economic times.
Doug reminded the group of how local produce used to be a mainstay of the community.
“Back in the ’70s, people used to come pick 10 or 20 gallons of strawberries to make jam and jelly,” he said. “That’s stopped.”
Today, with 300 acres of tomatoes, 40 acres of strawberries and a range of other crops, Patterson Farm’s produce market is a tourist draw.
But Doug said that a focus on locally-grown food will only help farmers if customers are also willing to pay a premium to help those local growers survive.
“I hope they take away an understanding of our industry and all that we offer here,” Michelle Patterson said. “And, hopefully, how all of these entities are important to our county.”
It’s a lesson that didn’t seem to be lost on those in attendance.
“Just to see the statewide appeal, the number of folks who come to visit from outside our county, is fascinating,” said Dan Peters, a member of the Rowan County Tourism board.

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