Recreation and agriculture come together at the agritourism crossroads


More Florida farms and ranches open doors to the public with retreats, attractions, events, and more

TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, cattlemen drove their herds to a remote part of central western Highlands County on their way to the market and port at what is now Fort Myers. Their destination was a corral under an oak hammock. If they could make it to the corral by nightfall, instead of taking four-hour shifts keeping the herd calm, everybody could get a good night’s sleep.

Today that area is a working cattle ranch: Dark Hammock Legacy Ranch. And it is, again, becoming a destination — but this time, for people looking for a tranquil place where they can escape the noise of interstate traffic, and revel in the sounds of the backwoods. “This particular facility, and the amenities here, lend themselves really well for educational and entertainment purposes,” says owner Baxter Troutman, president of Winter Haven-based Labor Solutions, Inc. Troutman has been holding corporate and church retreats, and is expanding into agritours and weddings this fall on the ranch of nearly 5,000 acres.

In Okeechobee, Quail Creek Plantation is attracting visitors who want a place to enjoy sport shooting and hunting. Originally purchased as a getaway by Whit Hudson for him and his family, Quail Creek has been expanding as others learn about the quail, pheasant, turkey, and exotic deer hunts — and the opportunity to host corporate retreats, fundraisers, family reunions, and weddings in an unspoiled area of oak hammocks and swamp.

Although the plantation has cattle and citrus groves on about 6,000 acres, it was not Hudson’s goal to have a cattle business or grove. “He wanted to get out of the commotion of Fort Lauderdale, to have a peaceful quiet place to retreat,” explains Maria Fanizzi, the plantation’s administrative manager.

Hudson did quail hunts to entertain friends and it evolved. As the word got out, more people wanted to come hunting. The population grew, and more people were looking for a getaway, so they expanded. “Ours has evolved to the point that it is a full-blown commercial operation,” Fanizzi says.

Thus, the lines between agriculture and tourism, two mainstays of the Florida economy, continue to blur. One thing is clear: More farmers and ranchers are dabbling in tourism, becoming recreational destinations. Capitalizing on people’s growing desire to know where their food comes from, farms and ranches are offering agritours, fishing and hunting, sport shooting, swamp buggy rides, corn mazes, hayrides, concerts, corporate and church retreats, and weddings.

“Tourism is our No. 1 industry and agriculture is No. 2 [in Florida]. There is a lot of opportunity,” says Mary Beth Henry, a small farms extension agent for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Polk County.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Census data shows 724 farms were involved in agritourism and recreational activities in 2012, up from 281 in 2007. Record numbers of tourists are visiting Florida. According to Visit Florida Research, the estimated number of visitors for the first two quarters of 2016 was up 4.3 percent, with nearly 57.4 million visitors/trips; in 2015, visitors were up 8.2 percent, with 106.5 million visitors/trips.

An exotic draw in Central Florida is Safari Wilderness at the Green Swamp in Lakeland. Visitors are taken on a safari to view exotic wildlife roaming the game ranch, where beef and the Irish Dexter cattle are being raised, says Manager Jean Sandifer.

The safari has been open for about four and a half years. Visitors can feed ring-tailed lemurs, primates from Madagascar; smell a water buffalo’s breath; take a kayak safari; and enjoy grass-fed Dexter burgers.

Diversifying with recreational venues has been an attractive option for some looking for other sources of income. But liability concerns and governmental regulations are some things to consider. It also is a lot of work, concedes Jerry Roberts, owner of Roberts Farm in Polk City, who was looking for a way to stay closer to home. A cow-calf operation, Roberts Farm offers educational field trips on its 60 acres. It also offers Harvest Holler Corn Maze, which opens on September 23; hayrides, tire swings, a cow train, a pumpkin patch and more are part of the fun through November 13.

A number of corn mazes have sprung up in recent years, including the Smith Family Ranch’s Cornfusion in Lakeland, and the Fox Squirrel Corn Maze by Futch Entertainment in Plant City.

The Heartland Maze, at Anthony and Erica Scheipsmeier’s nursery called Ag Outdoor World, is putting Bowling Green on the map. “We’re partnered with a lot of people. We’re shooting for 20,000 people. We’re prepared for that,” says Jack Goodwyn, the maze’s director of marketing. Popular Christian singer Chris August is slated to appear November 6 as part of his tour across the nation.

A $350,000 Hardee County Economic Development Grant is being used to finance the operation at The Heartland Maze, and build up tourism during a two-year period. The grant money also will finance multiple, seasonable events throughout the year, including a Christmas event, spring field trips, and “maybe even something like a Fourth of July event,” Erica Scheipsmeier says. “We love to entertain and have people here.”

The state of Florida has made it easier for farmers and ranchers to diversify through a state agritourism law that eases liability concerns. You can learn more here: http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/smallfarms/2016/06/21/agritourism-law/.

Meanwhile, agritourism is being highlighted at area meetings around the state, including last April’s Small Farms Conference in Fort Myers and an upcoming Treasure Coast Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference on November 1-2 in Fort Pierce. Another agritourism conference is planned in Polk County, possibly in February, Henry says. More information will be available at http://smallfarms.ifas.ufl.edu/ closer to the date.

Plus, the two-year-old Florida Agritourism Association is also gearing up to educate people about this opportunity; Troutman is one of seven inaugural board members. “It’s our hope as the board and the association, [that] as more ranchers and farmers learn about this, they would join and take advantage, if you will,” Troutman concludes, “of this wonderful opportunity to generate a secondary source of revenue.” With agritourism fueling the fire for two of Florida’s strongest economic drivers, recent legislation to foster its growth, and a state association to support it, growers and ranchers have a viable option for continuing to diversify their ag operations.

CREDITS

story by CHERYL ROGERS
photos by MIKE POTTHAST