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Agritour to Europe – Remarkable!

Part I: Italy
Part II: France & Spain
(below)

By Jane Eckert

Last month I began talking about the unique experience of leading a group of North American farmers on an agritour of Europe.  While that article focused on our experiences in Italy, in this issue I’d like to share a couple of special things we did on the second tour, which visited France and Spain. The farms we choose to visit are often off the highway and up the hillside that we wonder if the motorcoach will even be able to navigate the road. I’m proud to say we had no fender benders, and the bus remained unharmed, thanks to our wonderful driver.

One of our first stops in France was to visit Laurent Gannac, owner of La Maison du Citron.  He is a young, new Menton lemon producer.  The Menton lemon had once thrived in the previous centuries but was nearly wiped out in 1956 by a disease that ravaged the trees.  In the early 1990s, the local city wanted to encourage production of this native citrus, and started granting agricultural grants for the planting of trees.   Laurent is a passionate young man wanting to set up experimental orchards on the slopes surrounding Mention to bring back this local tradition, so the grants are letting two dreams come true.

On another stop, we visited the Camargue region of France, where we went to the Manade Blanc (manade is the name given to a herd in this region).  This is a 600-acre cattle breeding ranch owned by the Jean-Claude Blanc family.  We arrived just in time for a delicious lunch served by the family in their renovated two-story barn/party room for group events.  After lunch, we boarded a tractor-pulled wagon to go out to the field to watch a special sporting event between the Guardians (cowboys) and the Camargue bulls.  The Guardians collect and herd the undomesticated bulls in an exceptional demonstration of horsemanship.  This is an activity unique to this region and a traditional event handed down for generations.  The Camargue horses and fighting bulls have brought fame and notoriety to the community for more than 100 years. Manade Blanc not only has 3 different event rooms for rent, but also rents cottages and apartments for visitors.  

Very nearby in this same region we visited Mas de Valériole, a farm with rice, wheat, sunflower and grape production. We were given our tour by Hélène Michael.  The farm is owned by the Michael family senior and two sons who share in the production.  Several years ago they switched to an organically farmed vineyard, and plan to replace acres of rice production to grow more grapes in the coming years.  We enjoyed a tasting in their updated, attractive cellar that was a very comfortable setting for a group.  With each wine sampled they offered a special food pairing of local cheeses, olives and hard meats to complement the taste of the palette. Hélène, her mother-in-law, and son took great care to see that our glasses were filled and food stayed plentiful. Afterwards, we all gladly purchased their wines, rice and other products produced on farm or their co-op.

As we drove out of France and into Spain, we visited the most developed agritourism attraction that we had seen on the entire trip in Montornes, called Can Sala. We were met outside underneath their large outdoor pavilion and offered a glass of sangria as we were introduced to the family who enthusiastically explained their business.  A short tour was given (under drizzly conditions) as we saw the very large area devoted to not only farm animals but several exotic animals as well—birds, peacocks, parakeet, macaw, Catalon donkey, Friesian horses and more. 

Can Sala offers more than 10 school tour itineraries, plus birthday parties and many special event family weekends.  In addition, they offer classes and a pony club for children starting at age 3 and up, plus they host equestrian events.  They have redecorated a 14th century manor house into multiple dining rooms and guest rooms for individual and group events. We were served a typical Catalon lunch which features seasonal grilled onions.   Proper eating required each diner to wear a bib as we slithered the onion into our mouth.

The owner of Can Sala was eager to hear what our fellow agritourism operators offered and particularly enjoyed seeing the photo book from the Ellms Family Farm. It seems likely that pig races, a corn maze and a jumping pillow might soon be in the future for Can Sala. The dishes served to us, as well as the direct family involvement, helped us to rate this as a top stop.

An interesting side trip in Barcelona included taking a class on Spanish cooking at the Espoi Boisa.  While this was not done on a farm,   our group enjoyed the very hands-on experience. We were given a glass of wine upon our arrival and then divided into 3 groups and rotated to 3 different food stations.  The most interesting was the station where we were given a challenge to make 3 small plates based on the foods they provided with a time limit of 40 minutes.  Our three group plates were then judged by the chef for both presentation and taste. It was amazing how everyone (including the men) rose to the challenge of the competition. We see these types of competition shows on television all the time, but to actually compete for bragging rights brought out our competitive nature.  This lesson also translates to the North American farm—there is no reason why we can’t create individual or group challenges on our farms, whether it involves cooking, wines, scavenger hunts etc.

A couple of other very unique visits included a carnation nursery located high in the hills of Saint-Laurent-du-Var, and a truffle farm where we had a dog sniffing demonstration for hunting truffles. Of course, meeting fisherman at Cros de Cagnes and rowing out into the Mediterranean Sea with them was also a highlight.

So that’s a quick overview of this year’s France and Spain tour. I have found our groups enjoy not only the farm visits but also the camaraderie of all of our travel guests.  For 2016, we are planning a June inland tour of Alaska with the cooperation of the Alaska Department of Agriculture. This won’t be a cruise just seeing the commercial ports but going inland to hear the roaring rivers, see the tundra, view the wildlife, and some of North America’s most rugged terrain.   Until then, happy traveling, and happy farming to you all.

Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.