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Cooking up a Southern Oregon food trail

Local tourism agencies want to create a Rogue Valley food trail to highlight the popular culinary institutions that have root in one of the best agricultural areas of Oregon.

A two-day culinary and agritourism workshop is being offered to Rogue Valley residents who want to increase tourism to their culinary business and to the Rogue Valley in general.

The workshop is being offered by Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism commission, and is supported by local tourism branches Travel Southern Oregon and Travel Medford.

It’s scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 23-24, at the Phoenix Plaza Civic Center, 220 N. Main St., Phoenix.

The two-day event includes an educational component offered to anyone in the Rogue Valley who has a food-related business and wants to gain some traction. This component will help business owners and farmers learn more about the food tourism niche in Southern Oregon and how to market their products and services more efficiently, as well as the farmland use regulations and codes that must be adhered to when inviting the public to events on agricultural land.

There’s also time for networking, touring of various businesses and a discussion for the development of a “food trail” in the Rogue Valley that would highlight local markets, farms and eateries.

Kristy Painter, Travel Medford administrative coordinator, said Travel Oregon has helped several other regions in the state create food trails, and they’ve all been successful in attracting visitors.

“We have such a rich agricultural background,” Painter said. “We can grow pretty much anything here — the pears, grapes, pretty much anything you can name. Our seasons are so well defined and with all of that diversity we can create a way of marketing it all.”

She said the idea for the food trail is to include businesses and farms focused around culinary experiences, not wine or beer. Although Southern Oregon is well known for its vineyards, the Southern Oregon Winery Association has created a system of wine trails within the region. She said a hope is that the food trail could pair well with some of the wine trails.

“We want this to enhance and work with the vineyards, but not really encompass them,” Painter said. “We have so many heritage farms — Roxy Ann, Hillcrest Orchards, Eden Valley Orchards, Harry and David — we have a rich history of farming in Southern Oregon. We want to showcase the makers in the area and the farmers.”

Painter noted that the Rogue Valley Grower’s Market was listed in the top 10 farmer’s markets in the U.S. by USA Today in a Sept. 14 article.

The workshop is open to residents of both Jackson and Josephine counties and costs $10 a day.

The first day, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., consists of “culinary and agricultural tourism development in the Rogue Valley region focused on rural culinary and agricultural tourism product development, assessment of the local tourism industry, overview of food and agricultural travel markets, and discussion on top opportunities in this area,” according to a press release.

From 4:30 to 8 p.m., a free networking event will give attendees the opportunity “to hear from influencers who are developing culinary and agricultural tourism projects or business ventures; local initiatives and opportunities to inspire action and collaboration, all while enjoying a taste of local food and beverage,” according to the press release. Locations are to be announced, and transportation is provided.

The following day, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., will be a discussion of development of a food trail itinerary, an opportunity to learn how to enhance customer experiences and identify project funding and resources.

The events are facilitated by consultant Erika Polmar of Plate and Pitchfork. Polmar is an Oregon agricultural policy expert who specializes in farm-to-table-style dinners.

Painter said Polmar will help attendees understand the legal side of regulations and policies for planning events such as farm-to-table dinners.

Painter said many tourists plan their vacations around culinary experiences.

According to a 2017 Southern Oregon Visitor Report compiled by Travel Oregon, visitors spent $144 million on restaurant food and beverage in Southern Oregon that year.

About 20% of visitors participated in a fine-dining experience, 18% participated in exceptional culinary experiences, 12% visited a brewery or had a beer tasting, another 12% had a winery tour or wine tasting, and 5% participated in agritourism.

Travel Southern Oregon Director Brad Niva said there are six food trails around the state, and four more are underway. He said the Rogue Valley food trail is a two-year project that will be updated the second year.

He said the food trail will be released by the summer of 2020. Maps will be available at the state welcome centers and online.

Josias Escobedo, an AmeriCorps member through the University of Oregon’s RARE (Resource Assistance for Rural Environments) program, will spearhead the project.

Escobedo said committees will be created from the workshop event and the committees will determine which farm stands, farms and eateries will be incorporated into the food trail. He said the goal is to take an agricultural approach so restaurants that have an association with sustainable farming such as Ashland’s Standing Stone will likely be prioritized over those that don’t. But ultimately it will be the decision of the steering committee.

“We want to highlight farm stands, farms that have the capacity to invite visitors and food establishments that have their own farming aspect,” Escobedo said.

Morning refreshments and lunch are served both days of the workshop.

Space is limited so registration is required. More information can be found at industry.traveloregon.com/RogueValleyCATS.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.