Agritourism takes root in Arizona
More than 30 years ago, Mark and Carrie Schnepf developed a concept closely tied with agritourism. It’s a word, in fact, for which they could scarcely imagine would eventually become the local and national phenomenon it has. Introducing “agritainment.” While Arizona is undoubtedly rich in agritourism offerings such as Schnepf Farms, Queen Creek Olive Mill, The Farm at South Mountain, Red Rock Lavender Farm, The Orange Patch, Hayden Flour Mills at Sossaman Farms, Tolmachoff Farms, Blue Sky Organic Farms, the state’s growing wine industry and many more that attract visitors from near and far, something more is at work — or shall we say play. From the East to West Valley and everywhere in-between, people aren’t simply touring the agricultural wonders of Arizona, they’re experiencing the wonder that is agritainment.
From concept to district
Once upon a time, agritourism was embedded within the idea of human beings’ natural desires to reconnect to the land, absorb local agricultural history, combined with the vision of those who could provide the land and resources to take these concepts to the next level. And take it to the next level is exactly what many local agritourism entities have done.
The advent of agritainment has been a unique process. Again, Mark and Carrie Schnepf, who actually coined “agritainment” many years ago (and admittedly maybe should have trademarked the phrase), began to think beyond agritourism as a one-stop visit to encompassing a memorable, dynamic and diverse experience. From humble beginnings as a producer of potatoes and cotton, Schnepf Farms has become a local and national hot spot for famous events like the Pumpkin and Chili Party, Peach Blossom Celebration and Winter Wonderland, in addition to hosting weddings, corporate occasions and even serving as Queen Creek’s premier glamping locale.
“Agritainment as a business model offers the flexibility of experimenting without having to spend a lot of money to do it,” says Queen Creek’s former and first-ever mayor, Mark Schnepf, owner of Schnepf Farms.
Schnepf describes the agritainment journey of Schnepf Farms as a natural progression in offering entertainment rooted in agriculture. It’s one that nearby neighbor Queen Creek Olive Mill has similarly witnessed and adopted.
“Twelve years ago, we were in the middle of nowhere,” says owner, master blender and Olive Oil sommelier Perry Rea. “Now, we’re surrounded by rooftops, but we still have a farm feel.”
What began as a one-bathroom, single-shelf establishment has become Queen Creek’s prized olive mecca. With a restaurant serving all local offerings, eight tours per day and events like the Olivepalooza Harvest Party and Garlic Festival, the Olive Mill attracts visitors from Casa Grande to Canada (and beyond).
With Schnepf Farms’ 250,000 visitors per year and Queen Creek Olive Mill’s 650,000, it makes sense that both are now part of an actual designated Agritainment District, thanks to the support of Queen Creek and the advocacy efforts of Schnepf and Rea.
Inarguably, there truly is no better place primed for agritainment success than Arizona. After all, as Rea so appropriately points out, “We have the longest agritourism/agritainment season of anywhere – eight months out of the year.”
It’s not simply the seasons, however, it’s the soil, salt-of-the-earth purveyors of agritainment and ingenuitive marketing mavens that make the Valley a perfect source for agritourism.
“Our Arizona agritourism guide showcases nearly a dozen farm experiences in the East Valley for guests to explore, and also identifies a number of restaurants that feature local farms on the menu,” explains Michelle Streeter, Visit Mesa’s vice president of communications and partner relations.
The guide for which Streeter refers is none other than Arizona’s Fresh Foodie Trail, featuring agritainment activities ranging from making fresh pasta at Hayden Flour Mills at Sossaman Farms or picking peaches at Schnepf Farms to learning about best garden practices at True Garden Urban Farm. There is no shortage of entertainment possibilities.
“We have always found that partnering with our local food instructors, artists and craftsmen, naturally brings new collaborations and trend forward education opportunities,” says Pat Christofolo, owner of The Farm at South Mountain and Santa Barbara Catering. “The Farm has always been authentic in the many offerings that we have, allowing our property to continue growing for the last 20 years.”
While the Valley serves as the perfect place for agritainment, it has also bloomed at a most fortuitous moment – one that is likely to last and prosper.
“People are becoming heavily aware of what they eat and where their food comes from,” Christofolo says. “Agritourism is a popular way for interested guests to become educated on seasonal crops, methods of food growth and how important local farming is to the community. With many different properties giving these guests a fluid experience of the process, people begin to appreciate the work and final product that they enjoy so much.”
And, as local agritainment literally satisfies the palettes of healthy foodies and agricultural adventurists, it offers visitors something extra.
“Agritainment businesses aren’t simply stops along the way,” Rea says. “We have become destinations.”
“Visitors have long sought out unique ways to discover or remember a destination — now it’s through their stomachs,” Streeter adds. “I think the popularity of agritourism spans the generations. We’ve been so robbed of knowing where our food comes from in the last two decades that we are now more eager than ever to better understand what makes a premium product – and we all know you can taste quality.”
Schnepf has witnessed this first hand with a constant flow of local visitors to the farm’s U-Pick organic farms, and from out-of-state and out-of-country guests who come to pluck peaches from an orchard that serves as Arizona’s largest — with eight varieties of peach trees.
“We do a lot of tours, including bus groups all year round,” Schnepf says.
The future of farm-related entertainment
What do the experts recommend for other agritourism outlets considering a push toward agritainment?
“Be authentic in your offerings and stay true to your passion,” Streeter says. “Skip the polish and celebrate the dirt, sweat, tears, dedication and hard work that goes into your production and offering. We all get inspired when we can take part in something extraordinary. Our farmers, growers, winemakers, brewers — all our makers — are doing amazing things by staying true to Arizona’s uniqueness and making people take notice.”
“Don’t attempt to convey a contrived experience,” adds Rea. “Agritainment is successful because of its authenticity — the experience has to be real.”
The originator of agritainment reminds us of one of the most unique and coveted aspects of agritainment: “You absolutely cannot franchise the agritourism experience,” Schnepf says.
Something we’re all sure to remember when we pick a fresh Arizonan peach, olive or orange.