By Diana Lambert
Published: Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008 | Page 3B
El Dorado County farmers can't survive without tourist dollars.
That was the message delivered by speaker after speaker Friday to a bus carrying more than 50 government officials.
The tour of the county included a ride down tree-lined country roads, lunch served on a hill over crimson vineyards, an olive oil sampling, a visit to historic sites in downtown Placerville and a hayride and apple doughnuts at an Apple Hill ranch.
But it was serious business.
The tour was part of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments' Rural-Urban Connections Strategy.
The program's goal is finding ways to support and sustain the economy, environment and quality of life in rural areas.
"It brings us together to get a comprehensive look at the entire region," said Lincoln City Councilman Tom Cosgrove, chairman of SACOG, which provides transportation planning and funding in Sacramento region.
The rural-urban project includes tours of agricultural land and open space in the six-county region. The group toured Sutter and Yuba counties in April, Yolo County in September and plans to tour Placer and Sacramento counties.
Each county has different assets and challenges.
In El Dorado County, about "75 percent of farm products produced are sold directly to the consumer," said David Bolster, a farmer and member of the county chamber of commerce's Agriculture Council.
The county crop report showed its gross crop value to be $53.2 million in 2007. Timber brought in $18.6 million and livestock $8.7 million.
The rest comes from farms that average 27 acres.
"In order to be economically viable, we have to sell at the highest amount of dollars. … So, we press apples into cider and grapes into wine," said Valerie Zentner, executive director of the El Dorado County Farm Bureau.
High Hill Ranch in Placerville exemplifies the strategy. There are apples, apple cider, caramel apples, apple pies and other apple commodities for sale, but also stall after stall of outside vendors, hawking products from jewelry to sushi rollers.
A stop at David Girard Vineyards offered another glimpse into the county's agritourism business. David Girard said he expects to produce about 4,000 cases of wine this year but also hopes to profit from marketing the winery as a wedding site and corporate meeting venue.
"Ninety percent of our members must work full time or be retired to support the insanity that is farming," said Maryann Argyres, president of the Apple Hill Growers Association, which represents more than 50 fruit ranches.
The SACOG board members seemed to understand the message.
"They have to be able to make a profit, or otherwise you get mass housing and development," said Kevin Hanley, a SACOG member and Auburn councilman.