- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

BEAUMONT, Calif.

The route to Riley’s Farm starts at an exit off Interstate 10, followed by a nine-mile drive through the center of this bustling city, past the new subdivisions popping up everywhere and finally up a winding road.

“It’s off the beaten path,” cherry farmer Scott Riley says.

But that doesn’t stop folks from flocking by the hundreds to Mr. Riley’s farm each summer when the cherries are ready for picking. With the right kind of promotion, he figures, they will come year-round for the chance to hang out on a real farm, press their own apple cider and pick up a pie.

Mr. Riley is leading about a dozen farmers who banded together recently to promote agricultural tourism in response to Beaumont’s explosive growth. The farmers are pushing for land-use reforms that would allow them to expand orchards and create bed-and-breakfast inns modeled after those in California’s wine regions.

They’re betting that such an agritourism district would attract some of the millions of people who travel on Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and the nearby desert resort town of Palm Springs each year, as well as inspire others to get into farming.

But Mr. Riley realizes there is one big obstacle in his way — the rapid urbanization of this former farm region 75 miles east of Los Angeles.

“We might be too late, what with everything gobbled up for housing here,” he said.

The population in Beaumont has nearly doubled to about 23,000 during the past five years. Fruit trees, once ubiquitous on the local landscape, have been in decline the last several decades. Cherry grower John Guldseth said at least 40 orchards were around when he started farming in 1973. Today, he estimated, only about 10 functioning cherry groves remain.

Mr. Riley and other farmers who are adamant about preserving their way of life say the solution is to make a farm visit appealing to visitors looking for an urban escape.

They’d like to create an “ag adventure” map to point out fruit farms, pumpkin patches and other rural attractions in the San Gorgonio Pass.

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