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Agritourism: Promoting Yuma through agriculture
For years, agriculture and tourism have represented two key pillars that sustain the Yuma-area economy.
But the two functioned independently of one another. The farmers grew a wide variety of crops over three-fourths of the year, while the area's recreational vehicle parks and tourist attractions catered annually to tens or thousands of visitors who came here for the day or for the winter.
But now the Yuma Visitors Bureau and other local organizations are melding the two into what YVB refers to as agritourism. The tens of thousands of fertile acres that spawn winter produce are a reason in themselves for out-of-towners to come to the area.
In one of several promotional events , the visitors bureau collaborates with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, the Yuma Safe Produce Council and Arizona Western College to offer Field to Feast agriculture tours in the Yuma area.
In the tours' 2011 debuts, groups consisting mainly of winter residents or out-of-towners here for the day or weekend were shuttled to Cooperative Extension's Yuma Agricultural Center on 8th Street, where they were given gloves to harvest selected greens under the supervision of the Yuma Safe Produce Council.
They then visited area farms and agribusinesses, after which they ended up at Arizona Western College, where culinary students prepared them meals using the vegetables they had harvested earlier in the day.
Kristan Sheppeard, the director of agribusiness tourism for YVB, said the tours proved popular enough that they will be offered again this January. “Those were really well attended, so we're really looking forward to doubling (the number of tours).”
In 2011, the tours, nine in all, were offered twice a month. In 2012, there will be 16 tours, offered twice weekly starting the second week of January, Sheppeard said.
Continuing into March, the tours will segue into several other public events that showcase the area's farming industry, among them the annual Yuma Lettuce Days celebration that was presented the Governor's Tourism Award as the best special event in Arizona for the 2010-11 season.
For Sheppeard, packaging the area's agriculture with effort to promote tourism is an obvious union. “Agriculture is Yuma's No. 1 industry. If you go back and look down through history ... that (agriculture) is Yuma. I don't know how you can promote Yuma without promoting agriculture. I just think it's something we should be proud of.
“The idea is to create new experiences so we can get new people to Yuma and get people to stay here longer.”
Aside from increasing in number in 2012, the tours will make stops at area date farms to take in that segment of the area's agriculture, said Sheppeard.
Meanwhile, beginning in December, YVB will offer the first of three Farmer to Farmer tours, intended for participants who have farming backgrounds, she said. That's because some of the participants in last year's Field to Feast tours were winter visitors who were active or retired farmers, who had more specialized questions about Yuma agriculture that were not always relevant to the tour groups as a whole.
January also will kick off the Taco Trail, a series of six YVB-organized culinary tours that will highlight border food and local restaurants that make use of locally grown produce, Sheppeard said.
Sheppeard said people can sign up now for the tours at the Yuma Visitors Center, located at the Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park, 201 N. 4th Ave. For more information, call the center at 783-0071.
Events culminate in March with the Southwest Ag Summit and Yuma Lettuce Days.
The summit, set March 7-8, is an industry show that brings together more than 1,000 people employed in agriculture — not only in Yuma County but around the region — to learn about the latest developments in farming. That event is put on by the Yuma Fresh Vegetable Association, Yuma County Farm Bureau and Cooperative Extension.
Following that will be the Harvest Dinner, an event organized by YVB and the farm bureau as a fundraiser for the Yuma County Agricultural Scholarship Fund.
Yuma Lettuce Days follows March 10-11 at the Quartermaster Depot. This event, geared to the public, celebrates the area's winter produce industry.
“What we've done is create an agricultural week,” said Sheppeard. “It will be a full week, of the best of the best.”