More agritourism for educational recreation


Farm-time fun for all with crop mazes, pumpkin patches, hayrides, and more

RANCHERS TED AND DONNA SMITH have operated their 450-acre farm in North Lakeland for decades, and are proud of the family business located on the edge of the Green Swamp. Originally set up as a cattle ranch, the family-owned and family-operated Smith Family Ranch (www.smithranchlakeland.com) branched out about 25 years ago when part of the property was set up as a sod farm.

But as is the life of a Florida farmer and rancher, things tend to change. The family followed economic changes, and kept their eyes open to what was happening at other farms around them. They certainly would never have predicted that they would one day open a business they call “Cornfusion Crop Maze.” Five years ago, the family joined the state’s agritourism movement.

Florida’s farmers have historically shown a lot of resolve when the going gets tough: they have found ways to withstand bad weather, crop-destroying insects, diseases, and economic slumps. And when those circumstances led to difficult economic challenges, agriculture expanded beyond the realm of crops for many farmers willing to think outside the — field.

Farmers have opened their property to the public for crop mazes, weddings, hayrides, school tours, and more. Because laws can get complicated when it comes to permits and insurance, the state created a formal definition of agritourism as “any agricultural related activity consistent with a bona fide farm or ranch or in a working forest, which allows members of the general public to view or enjoy activities related to farming, ranching, historical, cultural, or harvest-your-own attractions for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes.”

Things have really changed in terms of versatility on Florida farms, says Taylor Stein, a University of Florida (UF) ecotourism professor. “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,” Stein explains. “Now, we have small, family-owned farms offering fall festivals, corn maze tours, wine tastings, and other activities. Agritourism in Florida is growing every year.”

And that upward turn appealed to farmers such as the Smiths, who made the decision to switch things up. “When the housing boom went bust several years ago, so did the sod business for us,” says Donna Smith. A friend suggested they look into setting up a crop maze.

They didn’t just jump into the world of agritourism, however. “We did a lot of research on the idea, and then we had to a whole lot of thinking about opening up our ranch to people coming onto the property,” she says. But it became clear to the family that times were changing, and farmers were making adjustments to help them get by. “About that time, Safari Wilderness right down the road from us was going through the whole thing with the county concerning agritourism,” she recalls. “We talked with them, went to Bartow for all the zoning meetings, and then it was our turn. We needed to be cleared for agritourism so that we could have the liability protection to allow people to come to our property.” They eventually opened what they proudly label the county’s “first and original crop maze.” It has had its challenges, and opening it meant adjustments for the family. But it was worth it. “It has been very successful, even though we fight the rain every year,” Donna Smith says. “We have continued to grow each year with more and more activities for families to enjoy while they are out here.”

It has been a fitting Floridian solution for farmers to combine tourism with agriculture in the past decade or so, experts say. After all, agriculture and farming are Florida’s top two industries, points out Edward “Gilly” Evans, professor and associate director of IFAS Global. “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 continues. “Farmers can no longer concentrate on only growing crops; they also have to think about how to grow their revenues.”

In 2013, the Florida Legislature passed a bill that protects and strengthens agritourism opportunities for state farmers and ranchers. Before the law was passed, farmers faced obstacles when they considered venturing into agritourism that included 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 says. In some cases, local zoning ordinances kept farmers from opening their farms to new business opportunities. And in some cases, neighbors questioned whether they wanted to have the businesses next door.

Agritourism has grown so rapidly in Florida that several farms now operate wineries. There is a special certification program for Florida Farm Wineries — the Florida Farm Wineries Program, which can be found at www.freshfromflorida.com. Polk County has the True Blue Winery in Davenport and the Fiddler’s Ridge Farms & Winery in Lake Wales.

Many farmers have not held back on variety. In addition to the Cornfusion Crop Maze, guests at the Smith Family Ranch will be able to enjoy a pumpkin patch, air cannons, hayride, duck races, farm animals, a tractor train for kids, and much more. In Plant City, the Futch family at Single R Ranch is holding its Fourth Annual Fox Squirrel Corn Maze Agritourism Event (www.FoxSquirrelCornMaze.com). The agribusiness touts “old-fashioned fun in the heart of cracker country,” with a tractor-pulled hayride, pumpkin patch, games, arts and crafts, food, country music, and a general store.

UF/IFAS Extension Agent Mary Beth Henry says local lawmakers continue to make efforts to relieve farmers from some of the red tape that has hindered some aspects of agritourism. Regulations that apply to year-round businesses can be eased somewhat to suit temporary on-site operations sponsored by farms in some cases. Henry keeps an eye on the agritourism movement and is involved in planning several upcoming conferences on the subject. There’s been plenty to keep up with lately, she says, and the future is likely to show even more activity in the area. “There’s a lot of potential for agritourism in our area,” she points out.

Statistics already show a clear upswing. Henry reports that census data collected in 2012 indicated that 724 farms offered agritourism options in Florida. “It’s really very significant, because the previous number was 281, and that was in 2007,” she adds.

Farmers are able to supplement their income, but it does have its drawbacks — opening doors wide for recreational reasons. There’s a certain loss of privacy, for instance. “It is a big worry, opening up to the public, even as much as we enjoy it,” Smith says. “We do now offer the property on a limited basis for weddings and parties. It is not something that we want to do every weekend. After all, this is still our home.”

The agritourism movement is also a terrific way to educate the general population. Fewer than two percent of Americans live on a farm these days, and the public is becoming further removed from farming practices and agricultural production. But consumers are quite interested in learning where their food comes from, and in the technological advancements in food production.

“We educate the public about agriculture,” says Donna Smith. “They get to go on a 30-minute, narrated hayride that tells them about the property, the Green Swamp, the native animals, the cows, and in general everything about a ranch. We even do school field trips during the week when we are not open to the general public.”

“It does provide a service for the public,” Henry agrees. “They learn more about where their food is coming from this way.”

CROP MAZES NEAR YOU:

CORNFUSION CROP MAZE & FALL FESTIVAL — Find it on Facebook for updates on opening dates and hours of operation. Adults, $11; children ages 5-10, $9; children ages 4 and younger, free. www.smithranchlakeland.com

FOX SQUIRREL CORN MAZE — Oct. 3-25, Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults, $11; children ages 3-18, $10. www.foxsquirrelcornmaze.com

MORE INFORMATION ABOUT AGRITOURISM:

Florida Agritourism Association
www.visitfloridafarms.com

The Central Florida Visitors and Convention Bureau
www.visitcentralflorida.org/default/agritourism

For more information about upcoming educational events on agritourism, contact Mary Beth Henry, Agriculture/Small Farms, Agriculture Safety and Pesticide Licensing, at (863) 519-1049 or email mbhenry@ufl.edu.

CREDIT

article by MARY TOOTHMAN