The kids will vote for Disneyland every time but if you want to try something different this year – if only for a night – try stopping at the Seven Sycamores Ranch on your way up or down the San Joaquin Valley. It's a chance to show your youngsters a little about farm life and, in particular, the importance of California's agriculture.
Agri-tourism is what they call it – the blending of tourism with California's vast farmlands and orchards to offer city folk an up-close view of how an orange, for example, gets from the tree to your dining room table. With its location just outside of Visalia, Seven Sycamores is in a good spot to break up that long drive between the cities of Northern and Southern California.
Bob McKellar is the host of Seven Sycamores and something of a visionary in the realm of agri-tourism. A few years back when he was just 75 years old, McKellar decided it was time to find ways to market some of his orange crop outside the usual packing shed channels that tend to eat up a grower's profits. He joined a national organization and found that, in some places, farmers had started "CSA's" – community supported agriculture programs – that cut out some middlemen and brought fruit straight to the consumer. Today, McKellar sells a sizable portion of his crop by packaging hundreds of fruit baskets delivered regularly to local customers.
Then McKellar got to thinking about the growers in other parts of the country who were hosting weddings on their property and, in his first year, booked 30 weddings on his picturesque grounds.
The piece de resistance is that McKellar now offers visitors overnight stays in an authentic farmhouse – a kind of bed and breakfast experience except that McKellar lives down the road and not in the house, and the breakfast comes in the form of fresh groceries that guests cook up themselves. If the three-bedroom farmhouse is too big, guests can opt for an economy-sized bunkhouse nearby. Both come complete with hens and baby chicks wandering the grounds, as well as roosters who offer guests wake-up calls for no extra charge.
The house was lived in by McKellar's mother for many decades until she died in 2002 and McKellar lovingly keeps family photos in various parts of the house, giving visitors the feeling they are staying in a real house, not a vacation rental. One guest used the guestbook to complain about all the family photos, but McKellar has no intention of taking the photos down. We thought they simply added to the charm of our stay.
The accommodations are comfortable, even for a large family. A big living room and old-fashioned porch area provide comfortable spots to unwind, while the kitchen has everything you need to cook up your own farm-style meals. As part of your stay, the Seven Sycamores will ask you what you like for breakfast and then have your refrigerator stocked upon your arrival.
McKellar family history is everywhere you look on the grounds. For example, there is a replica of a World War II observation tower that was used to watch for low-flying Japanese bombers if they attempted to attack L.A. by flying in over the San Joaquin Valley. McKellar's family and neighbors took turns watching in two-hour shifts for two full years.
If that's not enough for you, consider that McKellar also puts on his tour guide hat and personally escorts his guests through his 200 acres of orange trees where visitors will learn the differences between navel and Valencia oranges, the best ways to plant them, water them, harvest them and darn near enough info that guests could start growing oranges on their own.
Still not content, McKellar has begun hosting what he calls a Spring Farm Fest, which opens his acreage up to local families to come out and play carnival games, including a one-of-a-kind orange tree maze where families can find their way along roped pathways through a giant puzzle and collect proof along the way they completed the entire maze. If you've ever watched Survivor, it's a game that is just as intricate as one of that TV show's reward challenges.
As it turns out, the Visalia area has quite a few farm-related attractions for visitors. It's a bustling city with more than 400,000 residents within the marketing area. A lot of the homes are rural and, of course, farmland and orchards stretch for as far as the eye can see.
We stopped by Wiebe Farms in Reedley, where manager Richard Sawatzky carries on the family tradition that started with his father-in-law, Louise Wiebe, who launched the operation back in 1956. The first crop of nectarines was produced in 1959 and today this family-run business grows 500 acres of nectarines, peaches and plums, about 50 different varieties of fruit altogether. Tour buses bring tourists by a special barn where they're shown a professionally produced video outlining the Wiebe Farms history and then taken on an open flatbed trailer to see the trees and learn more about fruit production.
A big part of the Wiebe Farms tour nowadays is an olive oil tasting. Wiebe recently purchased the rights to produce Bari Olive Oil and they are setting aside acreage now to grow olives. But before you just drop by Wiebe Farms, be sure and call them (559-638-6861) as tours are not available every day.
Another stop in the general area was Luke's Almond Acres where Ed Esajian manages a Country Store that sells almonds he produces as well as a wide variety of fruit and nut products. Esajian also has been known to take a few minutes and talk to visitors about how the almonds are produced. Our advice: Stock up on the chocolate-covered almonds.
One of our favorite stops in the area was the Bravo Farms Cheese Factory, along the I-99 Freeway in Travers, where visitors can watch cheese being made and also find a treasure trove of food and gift products related to local agriculture. We spent a couple of minutes with owner Jonathan Van Ryn, who took us down below the cheese factory to the refrigerated cellar where there is a room full of shelves stacked with blocks of cheese that are still aging. Available in some Costco stores, Bravo Farms cheese has hit the big time recently with a national first-place award for its Silver Mountain cloth-bound cheddar cheese, which also took third in a World contest.
You can't miss Bravo Farms as your traveling along the freeway – it started out in the 50's as a roadside fruit stand and now Van Ryn has come in and expanded the operation to include a gift shop, burger joint, ice cream shop and convenience store. Bravo cheese actually has been produced since the 70's by a local dairy farm, but the current cheese factory was built as a partnership between Van Ryn and the original Bravo owner.
It all goes to show there's more than meets the eye as you make the tedious drive up and down the San Joaquin Valley. Next time take a slight detour into Visalia where California's agriculture produces more than just fruit and vegetables.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Visalia is about a three-hour drive north from Los Angeles and agricultural attractions are scattered among several small towns in the general area. Seven Sycamores Ranch is about eight miles northeast of Visalia in Ivanhoe.
WHAT: The Seven Sycamores Ranch and other Visalia-area attractions offer a unique educational opportunity to learn more about California's agriculture – especially helpful to city kids who don't know where many of their foods come from.
WHEN: Anytime of the year. The Seven Sycamores' Spring Farm Fest promises to be a fun event each year, while they also are considering some sort of fall event. Call ahead for exact dates.
WHY: Number one, it's good to see firsthand how farms and orchards operate, but this also is a great way to break up the long drive between Northern and Southern California. It also should be noted that Visalia is the gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, each a relatively short drive east.
HOW: Check with the Visalia Convention and Visitors Bureau for a list of local attractions (559-334-0141 or www.visitvisalia.org. For more information on the Seven Sycamores Ranch, phone 877-777-3536 or visit www.sevensycamores.com.
Photos, from top: Bob McKellar and his farmhouse getaway; Bob McKellar offers guests short seminar on growing oranges; Richard Sawatzky takes guests through Wiebe orchards; Bravo Farms co-owner Jonathan Van Ryn shows off his award-winning cheese
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway