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Valley sees spike in agritourism
No beaches? No problem! Local summit focuses on increasing agritourism in the Valley
Ron Macedo, owner of R.A.M. Farms in Ceres and Turlock, has seen an increase in visitors to his season pumpkin patches.

As California's number one export, tourism generated over $102.3 billion in direct spending in 2011 alone. Out of that sum, only $2.9 billion was spent in the Central

Fortunately, there is a group of people here in the Valley who would like to change that number.

Farmers, agritourism professionals, and marketing experts all came together Wednesday at the San Joaquin River Valley Travel and Tourism Summit to discuss methods of improving and utilizing the local resources to bolster tourism in the Central Valley.

"It's something that we have truly not paid attention to," said Virginia Madueno, president of IMAGEN, LLC and member of the California Commission on Boating and Waterways.

Madueno, who also served as the former mayor of Riverbank, said that the Valley is often overlooked as a tourist destination and that there needs to be a stronger collective effort to change that mindset.

"There is so much opportunity right here in the Valley," said Madueno. "What are we going to do to embrace the great richness in our region?"

The summit was hosted on the campus of California State University, Stanislaus and the university's, provost, James Strong, featured the importance of promoting tourism in the area in his opening remarks.

"The San Joaquin Valley is full of hidden gems," said Strong. "We have abundant agricultural, beautiful natural resources, high quality education welcoming Valley residents and so much more to offer."

The entire summit was focused around the concept of "agritourism," an idea that promotes the utilization of agriculture as a means of boosting tourism and in turn generating revenue.

According to Penny Leff, a statewide agritourism coordinator for the UC small farm program, agro-tourism can provide up to 75 percent of revenue for small farms that don't distribute their produce on a large scale level.

During the summit, a short 10 minute promotional video was presented highlighting the tourist attractions the Central Valley has to offer.

The director of the video, Roberto Chiesa, stated that it was vital to "continue the awareness and not stop" in order to achieve the desired goals for the Valley.

The summit also featured a number of other speakers, including Denise Skidmore, director of Education and Public Relations at Hilmar Cheese company.

Skidmore, who was hired in 2000 to develop the tour programs at Hilmar Cheese, emphasized the importance of Valley companies being able to provide the best type of tour possible for those looking to visit.

"If they are not completely satisfied they will not come back," said Skidmore.

Last year,Turlock saw a large spike in tourism with demand for hotel rooms spiking 16.6 percent. New retail businesses, sports tournaments and additional efforts in agritourism were all given credit for the annual gains.

"We have absolutely seen a rise in tourism due to agritourism," said Desa Cammack, director of the Turlock Convention and Visitors Bureau."People from all over the region come looking for products that are only found here in Turlock."

R.A.M farms, a local pumpkin patch in Turlock, is one the few businesses utilizing agritourism to attract visitors.

"It's been a great way to interact with the urban population," said Ron Macedo, owner of R.A.M farms. "You can tell by how intrigued they are and how many pictures they take that they're really enjoying the day."