Family fun and apple farms
By Leah Bigham
Every year, more than 500,000 visitors make their way to El Dorado County for an experience unlike any other. Visitors flock to these fertile hillsides to visit 56 ranches and due-paying members of the Apple Hill® Growers Association. The lure? Apples, the farms that produce them and fun activities for the whole family.
Each ranch provides unique attractions and a tourist appeal that has third and fourth generation families coming back year after year. “We are really a model for agritourism in California,” Executive Director, Ann Wofford said. The experience provides guests the chance to “know your farmer, know your fruit.”
In 1964, the association started as a means to preserve agriculture in their region. Farmers feared that they were in danger of becoming a “bedroom community” for
people who worked in Folsom and Sacramento. They were suffering from an epidemic of Pear Blight at the time, and planted apples with hope to aid in the survival of agriculture.
Shortly after the association was established, many of the members began setting up pie and bake shops to start selling their value-added products. Forty-six years later, their legacy perseveres as they actively share their story with new and returning guests. Groups of tourists, ranging from schools to senior centers, are entertained as they graze these farms. “There is something for everyone,” Wofford said, encouraging visitors to “make [their] own fun” during their stay.
Everyone visits the ranches for a different reason, but there is something to fulfill each of their expectations. It’s a “big connection time with the kids” as they are able to experience the way most of the world lives, Wofford explained. One ranch uses a device to demonstrate how to skin an apple and offers the snake-like skin to children. Pony rides, petting zoos and train rides are just a few of the activities children can participate in.
Parents are given the opportunity to “show kids the way life used to be during a simpler time,” Wofford said, referencing a historical museum and water wheel. These sites also resonate with older couples as they identify with the way things used to be and are given the chance to revisit their past.
Many of the ranches offer visitors the chance to pick their own fruit, participate in activities in the orchard or join in the fun of craft fairs. Other visitors are drawn to the delicious baked goods prepared with he season’s choice fruit.
Of the 500,000 annual guests, 75-90 percent come during the apple season. The farms become congested during the September and October weekends, especially those that run alongside Highway 50. Each features their own array of apple pies (frozen and fresh), caramel apples, apple cider, apple sauces, baked goods and of course many different varieties of fresh apples. However, visitors are warned that different varieties ripen at different times.
According to most recent statistics, member ranches covered approximately 90 percent of El Dorado County, with 845 apple acres in 2009. The same records report that 5,177 tons of apples were sold as fresh fruit and another 3,044 tons went into value-added products, such as pies, apple sauce and apple cider.
Apples are no doubt the main attraction, but Wofford points out that each ranch has their own appeal. She asks visitors to “visit somebody that you have never seen before. Try something new.” On their annual visits, guests develop a liking for certain farms, returning to the same ones year after year. They forget that there are many more to see, each one offering something different. Venture off and “feel free to come to the country” she said explaining that people travel a long way for the experience. They are invited to “come out and explore it.”
The Apple Hill® Growers Association has diversified their attractions and developed the slogan, “Apple Hill All the Time.” There are things going on all throughout the year that many guests are unaware of, like wineries, breweries and day spas to name a few. Berry ranches are open during the summer months when kids are out of school and the whole family can attend. It’s a good time to pay a visit, Wofford said.
As you are encouraged to make your own fun during your stay, Wofford asks that you take advantage of the beautiful scenery and its surroundings. It’s a good place to relax and have a picnic with your family. Or bring out a soccer ball to kick around with one another. Engage, be creative and utilize all of the things that the farms have to offer.
“It’s fabulous,” Wofford said, in regards to seeing third and fourth generation families returning to participate in the fun. There are also multi-generational families farming, she said. The Larson’s, whose ranch is home to the Farm Museum, are in their sixth generation of farming as members of the Apple Hill® Growers Association.
The Larson Farm has approximately 100 all-inclusive acres belonging to members of the family. Aside from their museum, guests come to see their packing machine to observe how apples are boxed for shipment. Being a part of the association allows the members to “collectively draw crowds to the farm,” said a Larson family spokesperson.
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