At the reins of a team of Clydesdales, Craig Underwood posed for photos with a posse of suburbanites and city slickers before taking them on a wagon ride around his farm in Ventura County, Calif.
This is not exactly where he thought his career would lead. His family has farmed in these parts for four generations, raising vegetables for markets around the world. But today, the grower, 62, is pushing a cash crop of a different kind.
Underwood has created the equivalent of an agricultural amusement park amid the Southern California sprawl of tract homes and shopping malls, providing an authentic farm experience to people hungry to reconnect with their rural roots.
More than 100,000 people a year visit the farm, where visitors can climb hay bales, pick their own strawberries, and feed veggies to rabbits and cows.
"Everybody looks at farm life as an idyllic way to live, and they want in some way to experience that," said Underwood, noting that entertainment farming now accounts for a third of his business. "More and more, we want to be able to return people to the farm. And in today's environment, it really helps us stay competitive."
Across California, there is a growing convergence between agriculture and entertainment as small farms turn to a bit of showbiz to survive.
Perhaps fittingly in this home of the entertainment capital, more than 600 farms around the state offer a direct-marketing component, a fivefold increase over the past decade. In addition to traditional enticements such as fruit stands and pick-your-own plots, growers are carving mazes in cornfields, opening dude ranches and setting up pony rides and petting zoos to draw customers eager to experience farm life.
Dubbed agritourism or agritainment, the movement is steadily picking up steam as associations form to promote entertainment farming and jurisdictions relax regulations to make it easier to launch such ventures. Agritourism generates an estimated revenue of $75 million annually throughout California, said Desmond Jolly, director of the University of California Small Farm Center in Davis.
Although that represents a fraction of California's $30 billion-a-year farm economy, Jolly said that for some farmers the additional income can mean the difference between staying afloat or drowning in a sea of red ink.
"It's no longer seen as a novelty," said Jolly, whose center keeps a public database of agritourism operations and provides guidance to farmers looking to start such ventures. "We're now looking at the farm as something that has assets beyond just what it grows."
Facing a mound of regulations and a surge of foreign competitors, farmer Paul Fantozzi set out to earn extra money three years ago by carving a maze in a cornfield along Interstate 5 near the community of Patterson. Each fall, thousands of visitors pay $7 each ($5 for children) for the privilege of walking miles of narrow pathways flanked by towering green stalks.
Fantozzi, 45, figures the maze accounts for about 5 percent of his farm revenue. He said he would like to expand the entertainment component so that it constitutes at least half the business.
"I see a need to do that in the future just to survive," the fourth-generation farmer said. Markets for small farmers "are disappearing in California, so we have to find some other way."
Entertainment farming is not for everyone. Many growers guard their privacy and are reluctant to allow strangers on their properties. And there are some who question whether such endeavors are legitimate farming enterprises and worry that farming could quickly become lost amid the amusements.
Then there are concerns about liability and insurance.
Watsonville grower Nita Gizdich, 70, an agritourism pioneer and regular speaker at conferences to promote the movement, said she has talked to many farmers who want to give it a try but are leery. She knows some who have been put out of business by too many insurance claims.
After 40 years of having people out to her 90-acre farm to pick their own fruit, taste a slice of homemade pie or comb through her antique shop and gift store, the apple and berry grower considers herself lucky that she has never had an accident.
Like others, Gizdich said she and her husband, Vince, were not exactly looking to become tour guides when they started. In fact, she said, some growers thought she was crazy for opening her farm to outsiders.
"If we hadn't done this, I'm sorry, but you wouldn't be talking to me today," she said. "This is how we survived."
Six years ago, California lawmakers made it easier for farmers to open their properties to overnight guests. Some counties have eased restrictions on growers who want to give visitors a taste of country living through festivals, fairs and other farm activities.
Even universities are responding to the shift. California Polytechnic State University's vaunted agriculture program in San Luis Obispo offers courses on agritourism and wine tourism as part of a curriculum on sustainable farming.
"There's a lot of thought going into what types of activities smaller operators can provide to supplement their incomes," said David Wehner, dean of Cal Poly's agriculture department.
It used to be that such activities were simply sidelines meant to supplement wholesale operations. But increasingly, they are becoming big business for small farmers, and in some cases make up most of what they do.
Take Impossible Acres in Davis. Katie and Clyde Kelly started that family farm nearly a decade ago specifically as an agritourism enterprise. Farming at the edge of the Sacramento urban area, they lure thousands of visitors each year from surrounding cities with a pick-your-own operation, school tours and, in the fall, a pumpkin patch featuring tractor rides, hay mazes and a barn full of cuddly animals.
There is no charge to visit the farm. Fruit is priced by the pound, admission to the animal center is $2 per child, and a tractor ride costs $1 per child.
Although they both come from farming families, neither was in the business when they came over from St. Louis to sharecrop land owned by an ailing family member. Today, the couple and their two children, Jonathan, 14, and Natalie, 12, run every facet of the operation.
For visitors to the farm, it is a window into another way of life, Katie Kelly said.
"They are looking for some kind of entertainment they can't get in the city, something unique and a little more wholesome," she said. "We're not just selling produce. We're selling an experience."