In an era of increasing urbanization, farmers and ranchers are finding people still love the outdoors and the nostalgia of country living. As they look for creative ways to increase revenue, they are turning to agritourism, by hosting wedding receptions in their barns, letting the public pick fresh produce, and inviting groups to their farms for corn or crop mazes, field trips, tours, and photo shoots.
“When the housing boom went bust, the sod business went right along with it,” explains Donna Smith, who along with husband Ted and sons Colt and Dakota run the Smith Family Ranch in Lakeland. “We had to look for ways to diversify.”
The Smiths set up a corn maze four years ago, and the event has been attracting thousands to their ranch at the edge of the Green Swamp ever since. They have expanded their offerings to include a Christian rock concert, hayrides, zombie paintball, outdoor movies, country Christmas celebrations, and even weddings. “We had an existing barn. We made it bigger, put in bathroom facilities and dressing rooms for brides and grooms,” Donna explains.
Angela Slappey, who owns S Bar S Ranch with her husband Billy, began hosting weddings about a year ago in north Lakeland. “They love the flatlands,” she says. “We do find even if there’s something going on inside the barn, people want to be outside.”
Brides and grooms are opting to marry beneath the Slappey’s majestic oak trees. Decorations may include old wooden tools or Angela’s great great grandpa’s saddle. They also can see palmettoes and registered cracker cows descended from the original cattle brought to Florida in the 1500s. Fall weddings are especially popular and brides and grooms should book a year in advance. “It’s old Florida,” she adds.
Mary Beth Henry, a small farms extension agent for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) in Polk County, says farmers and ranchers are finding some people “like to have an agricultural experience for entertainment.”
“It’s a good chance for the public to learn about agriculture,” Henry says. “It’s more prevalent if you’re driving up Interstate 75 (I-75).” She has begun organizing group tours designed to show people where their food is grown and how it is handled. The first tour included picking blueberries, eating at a blueberry winery, and visiting a blueberry packinghouse. A second trip is planned this fall centered around honey. “What we’re trying to do is help farms,” she says.
The goal is to charge visitors enough to provide some income to the hosts. “They [the guests] will probably expect to feel like they’re having a special experience that isn’t available otherwise,” she says.
Erik Peterson, a principal planner with Polk County’s land development division, suggests farmers and ranchers consult with the county when they are considering agritourism. County staff can help address issues that arise whenever there are crowds: Parking, handicap access, and bathrooms. “You have to have the ability to accommodate crowds. That’s the biggest hurdle,” he says. “With crowds come more costs.”
County staff also can help you avoid potential problems, sometimes with state laws. “The moment you slice that orange you become manufacturing. The moment you serve that smoothie you become a restaurant,” he observes.
The county is looking at how to accommodate blueberry wineries that may offer food, wine tasting and tours. “They become like entertainment venues,” he says.
Meanwhile at Collier Rocking Bar W Ranch and Hunting Club in Wauchula, 83-year-old Wayne Collier has been opening up his cattle ranch to hunters for about 12 years. “Hog hunting is probably the most popular. They come and bring their kids. This is just something to keep us afloat,” he explains. “They bring their guns and their hunting licenses.”
Collier supplies a hunting guide, who takes them out and can stay with them if they wish. He also has tree stands, ground blinds that reduce the hunters’ detection, and— for all day hunts— lunch, snacks, and drinks. Game includes quails, deer, and Osceola turkeys.
At Oponay Farms Inc., in Lakeland, visitors pick blueberries, strawberries, and peaches. “We have blackberries planted. Hopefully this coming season we will have that also,” says owner Lewis King. The farm is named for a Seminole Indian chief who lived in the county in the 1800s.
The Smiths are finding that the weather can be challenging even with agritourism. “We’ve had bad weather every year,” Donna acknowledges. Because of their proximity to the swamp, it’s extra trouble. “It takes longer for water to absorb in the ground,” she points out.
As part of their farm operation, they’ve been experimenting with growing green olives, which would be pressed for oil. “They should actually produce in September. We’ll see,” she says. As they continue to diversify, however, they offer photo shoots, providing the rustic background for engagement pictures and even a CD cover. They are also hosting schoolchildren for field trips, providing hayrides, and teaching the children how to feed cows.