It’s difficult to say that one place in Wyoming is the most beautiful, but Canyon Ranch, held by the Wallop family for four generations, has to be in the running.
What began as strictly a cattle operation in 1889 has gone through many iterations, from a full service guest lodge with activities as wide ranging as guided wildflower hikes to European-style pheasant hunts, the Wallop family has done it all.
“Originally, it was strictly ag. As you go through the decades, for over a century, and we have had a couple of different evolutions, but ag, ranching and cattle grazing has always been part of it,” said Sandra Wallop, who now runs Canyon Ranch with her husband, Paul.
From the mid-1990s to about 2008, the Wallops ran the guest ranch as a full-service, three-meals-a-day upscale lodge that secured an Orvis endorsement and welcomed visitors from around the world. A little more than a decade ago, Wallop said the family re-evaluated, and made some changes, mainly due to a desire to spend more time together.
“We went strictly to renting our houses on VRBO for holidays and for polo people,” Wallop said. “That is what we have been doing ever since.”
The visitors still come, and each iteration of the guest ranch life has had its benefits for both the traveler and the family.
“I think what we offer to guests is an experience of having their own home for a week, or a month, on this historic ranch, and if you pay the holiday rates, you don’t have to pay the taxes or the staff. You can wake up and drink your coffee on the porch facing the canyon,” she said. “That is not always available to a lot of people.”
And for the landowner, an extra income is often crucial.
“To steady the income is not even all of it, because the economy happens, or COVID happens,” Wallop said. “But it is a good way to add to your income, so that you might be able to replace that irrigation line. … It’s important income for us to be able to sustain our ranch, to pay our feed bills, to take care of the land.”
While most folks know about the dude ranch, agritourism has exploded in recent years. The category now includes any activity in which farmers and ranchers generate revenue from recreational or educational opportunities on their land, ranging from lodging options and tours of a working farm or ranch to guided hunts and even “pick-your-own fruits and vegetables” programs.
Beginning and small and mid-size farms are increasingly exploring agritourism as a strategy to remain competitive, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Agritourism has the potential to “help revitalize rural economies, educate the public about agriculture and preserve agricultural heritage,” and the USDA also says community-focused farms may find agritourism an attractive option because it provides more labor opportunities for local residents.
“A lot of ranchers are looking at opportunities for a secondary source of income to help support the ranch,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “People want to keep the ranch going, but need some help. Guest ranches are one way to do that, or leasing out land for hunting and fishing certainly is another way to do it. Other people look toward energy development, things like putting in a wind farm. There are a variety of things to do that could serve as a secondary source of income.”
Even before a record-level number of people traveled to parts of Wyoming during the COVID-19 pandemic, agritourism revenue was growing. Across the nation, the field more than tripled between 2002 and 2017, according to data from the Census of Agriculture. Adjusted for inflation, agritourism revenue grew from $704 million in 2012 to almost $950 million in 2017. Researchers have identified clusters of agritourism “hotspots,” including large parts of the intermountain West stretching from southeastern Wyoming up to Sheridan County. “Dude ranch” agritourism is often found in the intermountain West near natural amenities, such as national parks, according to the Census of Agriculture.
“What we used to see in the past was that a secondary source of income was someone getting a job in town, but through (diversification like agritourism) we hope the whole family can stay on the ranch,” Magagna said.
Often landowners outsource by bringing in a management company to run a guest lodge, or an outside guide to run hunts on their land, according to Magagna.
“What we see most is that people are looking to outsiders who will come in and lease a part of the land for the recreational side of things,” Magagna said. “The hunting part has been commonplace in Wyoming for a long time, but in part because the demand for hunting opportunities for out-of-state hunters continues to grow, it is also expanding.”
According to Jill Tregemba, agribusiness manager with the Wyoming Business Council, her agency has a team of regional directors that serve as local contacts for people with specific questions about agricultural tourism. The WBC, she said, can help anyone looking to expand into agritourism explore planning and zoning regulations, tax law issues and the other nuts and bolts of starting a new business on the ranch.
“We’re just as committed to agricultural businesses as we are to Main Street,” she said. “We want to open opportunities and markets, removing barriers so that there are opportunities for farms and ranches to be more prosperous, just like any other business.”
On a larger scale, the WBC also works to remove growth barriers, building collaborative partnerships with places like the Wyoming Office of Tourism, she said.
“Farms and ranches are businesses. They’re so family oriented, and sometimes put in a lifestyle category, but they’re a foundational business model to our state, to our small communities and to our rural communities,” Tregemba said. “Without that foundation, we would look a lot different than we do now.”
Mae Smith, director of agriculture and rangeland management at Sheridan College, said the college will launch an agritourism program within the next year because of an increase in interest, and the potential opportunities for local businesses.
“In Wyoming, this is our cultural heritage and a huge sector of our economy,” Smith said. “We at Sheridan College want to make sure that that continues. Agriculture feeds our economy, and what better place to launch an (agritourism program) than at Sheridan College.”
The idea for the program came as leaders at the college also noticed an uptick in interest in agritourism.
“We’re all thinking about agriculture, about how we can diversify to spread out that risk, with a volatile calf market, changing fuel prices and other challenges,” Smith said. “We’re also thinking about how to add income to an operation, and we’d love to help support the community or region in trying to make (agritourism) a viable option for their agricultural operation.”
There are already classes in place interested parties can take on hospitality, and the agritourism certificate program will likely launch within a year. It will be a one-year, 32-credit certificate and will include coursework on marketing, economics and agritourism in general. The coursework will range from an introduction to agritourism course to a track where students will create a business plan for their operation.
“We’re thinking, ok, so you have an agricultural operation, or maybe you’re thinking about getting into a farmers market or grow-your-own place,” Smith said. “What are the things that you are going to need to have in order to help support this either business or additional enterprise? We’re hoping this will be popular, and will help serve the community. We want people to feel more comfortable about starting and launching a new enterprise.”
Eatons’ Ranch on Wolf Creek is one of the oldest guest ranches in Wyoming, Smith pointed out, and the idea of a guest ranch is not new.
“We all know about ‘dude ranches,’ and that is not necessarily a new concept. But with tv shows like ‘Last American Cowboy,’ ‘Longmire’ and ‘Yellowstone,’ the cowboy lifestyle has been romanticized again. Ag operations have been able to capitalize on that,” she said.
New technology in guest services has also been a game-changer, with apps like Happy Camper making it possible to offer a portion of land with zero amenities for camping without contact between the host and the guest.
“There are apps that are so easy, and really low maintenance. So the accessibility is so much easier than it once was, and there is a support network behind it,” Smith said.
Agritourism includes not only the traditional guest ranch or hunting guide operation, but local food opportunities, pumpkin patches and camping. Sheridan College is uniquely positioned to offer agritourism coursework because through its “deep roots and connections, and a desire to keep the agricultural community vibrant, the college will connect people with others who are already doing this work,” Smith said.
“We really are going to connect with the community to get firsthand experience and tours, to hear from people who are actually doing this, about what has worked well and what hasn’t worked well,” Smith said. “One of the scariest things about starting up a new entity or business is that you are taking a big risk, and so we’re really hoping to hear from people who are doing it.”