Florida’s top two industries are tourism and agriculture, and when you combine the two, it becomes something special for many folks across the state.
UF/IFAS Researchers: State’s agritourism industry is soaring:
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Every weekend from October to early November, thousands of families line up to traverse the Sweet Season Farms eight-acre corn maze in Milton, Florida, tucked into the northwest tip of the state. A few hundred miles away in south Florida, other residents spend their weekends visiting Schnebly Redland’s Winery & Brewery, part of the state’s burgeoning wine-making industry.
“It used to be, even just 20 years ago, that all that Florida offered in agricultural tourism was u-pick farms where visitors could pick their own fruits,” said Taylor Stein, associate professor of ecotourism in the School of Forest Services and Conservation, part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Now, we have small, family-owned farms offering fall festivals, corn mazes tours, wine tastings and other activities. Agritourism in Florida is growing every year.”
Florida’s top two industries are tourism and agriculture, said Edward “Gilly” Evans, associate professor and associate director of IFAS Global who is based at the UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, Florida. “It just made sense to combine the two to create an even bigger economic impact for farmers and the state, reduce the friction between farmers and urban dwellers by demonstrating how agriculture can conserve natural resources, and provide more recreation for the public,” he said. “Farmers can no longer concentrate on only growing crops; they also have to think about how to grow their revenues.”
Amy Perryman, whose family owns Coon Hollo Farms in Micanopy in central Florida, grew a new vision for the family farm after visiting a corn maze in Jacksonville. “I absolutely fell in love with the idea of offering events at the farm. I like working with people and I’m a teacher at heart,” said the UF/IFAS alumna and former Extension agent for Baker County. “Plus, I was looking for a way to join the family farm without taking income from my parents.”
It took another five years before Perryman could convince her father that a corn maze was the way to go. “He couldn’t understand why anybody would pay to walk in the fields,” Perryman said.
The family opened the gates to their first 10-acre corn maze on fall weekend in 2009, and expected 2,000 to 3,000 visitors. Ten thousand showed up. “That’s when we knew we were onto something. Now, my sisters sell drinks, my grandmother sells jam, jellies and produce, and we offer hayrides, horseback riding, even weddings.”
Perryman and her family design and create their own corn maze. Others, like Trent Mathews, owner of Sweet Seasons Farms in Milton, pay companies to come up with the design. Last year’s design was of pro golfer and Milton native Bubba Watson.
“We come up with the idea of what we want, but we partner with a maze company out of Utah to create the design,” said Mathews, a UF/IFAS graduate and district conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Jay.
The family business has exploded. “We started with a five-acre maze. Currently, we have an eight-acre corn maze, a play area, a pumpkin patch, 20 acres for hayrides, and seven acres for parking,” Mathews said. “The events run for six weeks, and last year we had more than 27,000 people.”
Farmers are getting lots of help from local and state officials. In 2013, the Florida Legislature passed SB 1106, a bill that protects and strengthens agritourism opportunities for state farmers and ranchers. Before this law, farmers were faced with several barriers to agritourism. These include zoning laws and a heavy burden of liability.
“There used to be a massive insurance cost associated with agritourism. Now, the insurance companies understand the industry better and are more willing to work with farmers,” Stein said. Also, local zoning ordinances kept farmers from opening their farms to new business opportunities, and sometimes, neighbors balked at such a venture in their backyard.
Agritourism has grown so rapidly in the state that several farms now operate wineries. There is a special certification program for Florida Farm Wineries, which requires that a winery must produce or sell less than 250,000 gallons of wine each year, maintain at least 10 acres of vineyards in Florida, must apply for the program each year, must pay a $100 registration fee, and must be open to the public for tours, tasting and sales at least 30 hours a week, according to the state agritourism law.
Wineries that participate in the Florida Farm Wineries Program then become certified Florida Farm Wineries. This means that the winery is recognized as a state tourist attraction and it may display the Florida Farm Winery logo.
In south Florida, the Schnebly Redland’s Winery & Brewery went from being a small family farm, to being the country’s southernmost winery. The owners, Peter and Denise Schnebly, set a goal for themselves of starting an agritourism business based from their farms in the Redlands of South Florida. Their vision was to provide tours to visitors of their 96 acres of exotic tropical fruits and gourmet vegetables that they grow and market fresh through their produce company Fresh King, Inc.
In the spring of 2003, the couple’s friend convinced them to start a winery featuring wines made from the tropical fruit that they grew. Sustainable farming became a top priority as the Schneblys boast that each mango, lychee, guava, passion fruit and Carambola is personally picked for fermentation.
“UF/IFAS researchers at Tropical REC were members of a team that did a tremendous amount of work to help change some of the laws to get the Schnebly farm certified as a winery,” Evans said. “Now, besides the winery there is an alligator farm, fruit stand, tours of the farm and brewery for specialty beers—all part of what is known as the Historic Redland Tropical Trail. We never could have predicted how successful this endeavor would have become.”
The future of agritourism in Florida is bright, Evans said. “When we first studied agritourism, we truly underestimated the success that would come,” he said. “Now, it’s anyone’s guess on how much of an economic impact this will make on the state and on local farmers. All the necessary components are there to help farmers keep their land, help the public understand the importance of locally grown food and help the state increase revenue.”