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Agritourism Comes To Thurston County

By Sandra Romero

This year, Thurston County adopted the Agritourism Overlay District (AOD) Ordinance, giving south county farmers a much needed boost. The ordinance is the result of the collaborative work among local farms, wineries, and other business owners to help farmers make a living all year round.

The phrase "agritourism" generally refers to any activity that attracts visitors to a farm or ranch. Agritourists can choose from a wide range of activities that include picking fruits and vegetables, riding horses, tasting honey, learning about wine and cheese making, engaging in ecotourism or shopping in farm gift shops and farm stands for local hand-crafted goods.

Farmers, ranchers, distillers and food artisans are showing an increased interest in starting agritourism ventures as a way to boost the local economy by purchasing locally made and grown items.

But making it easier to start an agritourism business is about much more than just the economy. Small farms have been on the decline for decades, and it's harder and harder to make a living as a farmer in America today. Based on studies done by Thurston Regional Planning Council,it is estimated that 2,000 acres of farmland are converted to other uses every year in Thurston County. When we make it easier for small farmers to make a living on the land, we make it easier for Thurston County farmers to keep their farms and protect farmland and open space from development and urban sprawl.

By bringing tourists and guests to the farms, ranches and places where our food is actually grown or made is a chance to make deep and lasting connections with our shared history and culture.

Thurston County's agritourism ordinance is designed to reduce regulatory barriers, streamline permitting, and help guide and encourage future development of agritourism operations within the overlay district. The ordinance covers activities including farmers markets, overnight farm stays, farm stores and bakeries, country inns, wineries, breweries and more.

A local farmer and former Agriculture Committee member, Fred Colvin of Colvin Ranch, sees the benefits of agritourism, stating:

"Agritourism is just another way for the (agriculture) community to connect with others in the community as well as provide for diversification to help make agriculture more viable.  The county's efforts should open up new opportunities for the farming community, and I thank the county for leadership on this."

Currently the ordinance encompasses about 40 percent of the non-forestry zoned acreage in Thurston County, primarily in the south. Because it's the first time something like this has ever been done in Thurston County, this will be a trial period, and my fellow Commissioners and I have resolved to revisit the ordinance in 18 to 24 months to determine if adjustments to boundaries or other components are needed.

The Agritourism Planning Committee continues its work to develop agritourism efforts for all of Thurston County including work on a showcase in 2013.

You can learn more about agritourism in Thurston County at http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/permitting/agriculture/agriculture-tourism.html

Sandra Romero is a Thurston County Commissioner.


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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22