Reconnecting to the Land
April 20th, 2017 by Lori Russell

Roger leads educational farm tours for more than 2,200 schoolchildren a year at Green Cedars Farm in Molino.
Photo by Michael Newman

Florida agribusinesses welcome visitors young and old to experience a slice of their life

In rural Molino, Florida, retired University of Florida extension agent Roger Elliott provides a healthy home for horses, sheep, pigs, goats, guineas and peafowl at Green Cedars Farm.

The farmer with a master’s degree in education welcomes families and more than 2,200 schoolchildren each year to his 30 acres to show them how it is done.

A growing number of Americans are choosing rural landscapes and activities as an alternative to the country’s more expected tourist hot spots.

According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, the number of farms providing agritourism—a combination of agriculture and tourism—and related recreational services increased by 42 percent from 23,350 to 33,161 between 2007 and 2012. The number of Florida farms offering recreational experiences more than doubled during that same time, from 281 to 724.

Katie Strength, who teaches first grade at R.C. Lipscomb Elementary School in Pensacola, says Green Cedars is her students’ favorite field trip.

“So many of our students have lots of virtual experiences, but much less hands-on time outside and with nature,” she says. “They have read about farms and watched them on TV, but this is a new experience for almost all.

“Mr. Elliott always tells the children that when you have experiences outside, you remember them for a long time. We learn how you can look at a chicken and tell what color egg it will lay. He shares about his dogs and how they are trained to work around the farm. We study animal classification, composting, recycling, how plants grow and much more.”

The kids also enjoy a hayride, and there are plenty of animals to hold—from chicks and rabbits to lambs and piglets.

Roger—who sells his meat, raw milk and eggs at farmers markets—also invites his customers to drop by the farm for a feeding-time tour.

“There has been a big increase in interest in where food comes from in the past five years,” he says. “We encourage people who buy our products to come out to see how we farm, and to understand what we feed and how we feed.”

Diversifying With Tourism
The great thing about agritourism is that it draws from every cross section of society, says Melissa Hunt, marketing representative at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“Whether it’s a u-pick farm that makes for a fun family outing or special events like civic gatherings and charitable fundraisers on family farms or ranches, Floridians and visitors yearn to reconnect with the land,” she says. “And with such diverse options, there’s really something for everyone.”

A Florida law passed last year gives local governments legal guidance on the growing industry and makes it easier for agricultural businesses to incorporate tourism.

“When a business can diversify its product offerings, they don’t necessarily have to rely on one product for sales and success,” says Melissa. “The biggest trend we’ve seen in Florida last year was the number of u-pick farms opening up throughout the state. Some are single crop open only for a short season, while others have several crops and are open year-round.

“With the 2016 legislation settling in the law books, I think that in addition to u-picks, we may start to see more on-farm wedding locations open up.”

In regions of the U.S. with deep agricultural roots, agritourism has been around for generations, says Martha Glass, founder of the National Agritourism Professionals Association.

“In the late ’50s to early ’60s, that meant picking out a pumpkin at a pumpkin patch or cutting down a Christmas tree at a u-pick site,” Martha says. “Visitors to a peach or apple orchard took a bucket, picked and went home. During their visit, they hoped to see some machinery or buildings that looked like what they had on a farm where they grew up.”

By the early 2000s, nostalgia for the family farm experience became a driving force for many active, healthy grandparents who brought their grandchildren.

“That generation remembered going to grandma’s farm for a family reunion,” says Martha. “They wanted to take their children and grandchildren to show them where their food came from and what it was like to live on the farm.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, patriotism and nostalgia swelled across the country.

“We cared very much about our farms, and we realized that we were in danger of losing that way of life,” Martha says.

Expanding the Experience
From animals to crops, farmers realized they had something city people wanted to see.

Christmas tree farms expanded to include cut trees and a farm store with ornaments. A farm produce stand on the side of the road became an enclosed store with a front porch and rocking chair. Little country towns that surround these farms saw visitors coming into their downtowns to eat at restaurants and buy gas.

According to Martha, about 80 percent of agritourism farms in the U.S. today have some type of activity—from hayrides to harvest festivals, u-pick produce to vineyard tours, horses to hens.

Farm-to-fork—also called farm-to-table—dinners feature meals with fresh, local ingredients, often in the settings where they are grown. Diners can tour a farm and talk with the people who made the products and prepared their meal.

Farm weddings also are popular. From rustic to lavish, outdoor or under cover, there are plenty of options for couples looking to get married with their boots on.

For those looking to enjoy life on the land for more than a few hours, farm stays provide creative and unique lodging. Accommodations range from a room in a farmer’s home or converted farm building to a guest house or campsite.
Some hosts welcome help with chores or offer classes in cooking, photography or cheese making.

Dude ranches offer another option for individuals and families looking to experience the rural lifestyle. At a working dude ranch, daily chores and activities—including cattle and horse drives—are determined by the needs of the livestock.

Horseback riding and other outdoor activities are the focus at dude ranches, while larger resort dude ranches offer diverse activities and facilities in addition to riding.

Attracting Guests
At Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo, an hour south of Orlando in Polk County, guests enjoy horseback trail riding, swimming, golf, trap and skeet shooting, hayrides, cookouts and a full-service marina.

The largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi, Westgate also hosts the longest-running Saturday night championship rodeo in the country with trick riding, bull riding, calf roping and barrel racing in a 1,200-seat arena.

On the edge of Ocala National Forest, Griffin Ranch welcomes guests to the classic old Florida ranch life. Families and couples can take a trail ride, canoe or kayak down the Oklawaha River, or relax in a rocking chair on the deck.

Happy Acres Ranch in Dunnellon is a 40-acre working horse ranch that offers trail rides, lessons, guest cottages and RV parking.

For a hands-on working ranch experience, head to Crescent J Ranch within Forever Florida—a 4,700-acre wildlife preserve in St. Cloud. Play cowboy for a day with a riding lesson on a Florida cow pony, then head off to help rotate the herds or check fences. More experienced riders can take turns cutting, sorting and running down strays at the rawhide roundup.

Overnight trips include a three-hour wilderness trail ride to and from a remote campsite complete with tent, campfire and a steak dinner under the stars.

Sharing the Life
At the Smith Family Ranch outside of Lakeland, 25 acres of fun happen during October. The 640-acre working cattle ranch hosts a family fall festival featuring an 8-acre corn maze, narrated hayrides through cattle pastures, games and activities for the kids, and rides on Big Allis, the monster tractor.

Weekend evenings, guests gear up with paintball equipment and ammo for the Zombie Farm Paintball Hayride.

After using their land for a cow-calf operation and sod farm for nearly 25 years, Ted and Donna Smith and their family decided to add tourism to their list of targeted offerings in 2009.

“People come out here (for the festival) in the morning and stay all day,” Donna says. “They can just let their kids go because it is safe and there is plenty to do.”

Cody Allen of Lakeland was raised about a mile from the Smith ranch, and has visited the fall festival since it opened in 2010.

“I want to show my kids this is the lifestyle I grew up with,” he says. “It is part of my history.”

His children love the hayride and the corn barn—a sandbox-like structure filled with corn kernels.

“The kids get to experience how the cattle industry works, they feed the cows, they see them up close,” Cody says. “It gets them outside and having fun.”

While Donna says people come for the activities, she looks for every chance to teach people about her family’s land and lifestyle on the edge of the Green Swamp—central Florida’s aquifer. She hosts groups for tours, and the family has added a venue for weddings and other events.

“One of the main reasons we got into tourism is to educate people,” she says. “So many people in cities don’t know where their groceries come from. It does people good to come out and see that the cattle aren’t mistreated and they have grass to eat. They are very well taken care of.”