By Howard Gibson – Kern County Valley Ag Voice
Agritourism is defined simply as an agriculturally based operation that brings visitors to a farm or ranch. Here in Kern County we have one of our state’s more successful operations, the local family owned, Murray Family Farms. The diverse agritourism operation offers everything from on-site bakeries, hay wagon rides and other family activities to the public with direct access their many varieties of fresh-picked and u-pick fruit. About 200 varieties of fruits plus a wide variety of veggies are grown on the farm and are available in sequence year-round. Their retail stores offer fresh produce, snacks and gift items. Seasonal favorites include numerous varieties of cherries, blueberries, has two locations: a 42-acre fruit farm on Hwy 58 and a 70-acre fruit and vegetable farm on Interstate 5. They refer to these locations as the “southern gateways to California’s Central Valley.” Murray Family Farms, which was established more than 24 years ago, strawberries, blackberries, stone fruit, apples, citrus, artichokes, asparagus, tomatoes, melons and pumpkins. As Steve Murray reminded us, “It really opens the eyes of the kids for them to be able to come and experience a real farm with this kind of variety.” The Murrays have also expanded in more recent years to offer their products from within their “Big Red Barn.” Customers come to the Barn year round to shop for produce, prepared foods, preserves, fresh baked pies and fruit smoothies. “Okie Fry Pies” are a trademarked signature feature at the farm.
“We opened the Big Red Barn over five years ago and we’ve been selling fruits and vegetables in there ever since. It’s always been our dream to have this cool little restaurant here that serves meals with homemade deserts and now we have it. It’s taken years to get all the permits but we are very pleased with the results.” Steve Murray said. Guided tours on tractor-drawn hay wagon rides showcase the business’s 43 acres of farm crops, and participants can sample by picking. Stops are made along the way to observe farming activities and collect customers who’ve stopped to pick their own fruit. “Picking local fruit that is fresh and ripe increases value. Ours is no comparison to the dry, flavorless fruit found at big box retail stores. We find customers are willing to travel farther and pay maybe a little more for fresh and ripe local fruit”, said Vickie Murray. Besides the fun of finding and picking their own fruit, the children are always drawn to the petting zoo, bounce pillow, butterfly house, wagon rides, cattle train, mazes, and picnic area. The farm’s petting zoo includes goats, sheep, ducks, geese, chickens and a little more exotic fare for a farm, such as pigeons, miniature horses, peacocks and even turkeys.
Speaking of children, yearly they have more than 10,000 school kids come for tours and leave with berries in the spring or pumpkins in the fall. They’re also a main stop for tour buses, which bring people from all over the world. In addition to their direct market activities at their two farm stores, the Murrays pack and sell their world famous cherries and berries through wholesale outlets. The farm works directly with Prima Frutta Packing, Warmerdam Packing and Hurst Berry, who are responsible for their wholesale sales. They pack and ship the farm’s fruit domestically and internationally to Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan, among other countries. “Fond memories grown ripe here” is Murray Family Farm’s official slogan. In addition, the Murray family and their employees spread out, traveling to 28 certified farmers’ markets during the peak cherry and berry season.
Currently, Murray hosts Octoberfest which they first launched ten years ago. it’s a Halloween, family-friendly style Octoberfest, with lots of Octoberthemed activities complete with hay rides, corn mazes, pumpkin patches and food to enjoy too. There are also homemade desserts including pies and cookies for fall. October, which was Murray’s slowest month, is now its most popular.
“What it does is it helps cash flow us into winter months,” Steve Murray said. “In our farming operation we have a lot of employees and this gets us the cash that helps us meet the payroll. It’s literally pumpkins for payroll.” The benefits to the local economy are significant. Located in the
Lamont-Arvin area, Murray Family Farms provides year-round employment to an economically disadvantaged region. Dollars are collected from export and domestic customers, coastal cities and interstate travelers, and paid to the local labor force. Value added agriculture provides 10 times more employment per acre than conventional agriculture. While most agricultural employment is seasonal and repetitive in nature, these full and part-time jobs offer training in customer service, use of cash registers, public speaking, entertainment, education, hospitality, clerical, culinary arts, and intensive dynamic horticulture. The Murrays turned to agritourism as a diversification strategy, but it has risks of its own. “Agritourism eats up all of your available cash and then soaks up all of your profits in continuous upgrades, new venues and infra-structure,” Steve said. More than 75 percent of the farm’s income comes from international sales through the packing houses and interstate travelers at the fruit stands. The farm also brings in dollars from farmers’ markets in southern California and the coast. More than 75 percent of its expenses go to local employees that live in a seriously distressed economy, Steve said. Besides the approximately 66 full-time employees needed for winter work, as many as 660 are present during peak cherry harvest, 600 of whom are contracted pickers. But the enterprise could get by with just four full-time employees if agritourism weren’t part of the operation. Agritourism customers consist of local residents, school children and tourists. There are tours for college students and faculty. Both Bakersfield College and California State Polytechnic University participate. Additionally the farm is involved in 28 farmers’ markets. This month Chevron gas pumps are being installed at the Hwy. 58 location to help offset increasing labor costs. Steve would also like to expand into a Community Supported Agricultural program to bring our fresh, local produce directly to the customer. As he said; “We want to continue to grow, reach out, and give back to our community.” For more information, call Vickie at 661-330-0101.