Fall festivals help central Florida farms stay green with cash

UMATILLA — On an unusually cool October morning in central Florida, farmer Bill Baker waited for a kindergarten group to finish touring the greenhouses of Sunsational Farms in Umatilla.

Today’s youth potted heads of lettuce, rode a tractor-drawn children’s train, and picked mini pumpkins. Sunsational is one of the few farms in Central Florida that grows its own pumpkins, Baker proudly says.

Across the field, Lake County Farm Landmark “Big Orange” the structure sports a seasonal pumpkin grin between pumpkin-stacked hay bales and the farm’s Halloween haunt, Dr. Grimley’s Haunted Trail. The walls of the haunted maze are made of stacked plastic citrus fruit bins, says Baker.

Sunsational Farm’s fall events are one of its main sources of income and contribute to its proper functioning. Baker, like other central Florida farmers, recognized that what is known as agritourism could help keep his business afloat.

“It’s getting harder and harder to stay in the citrus business because the profitability just isn’t there like it used to be,” Baker said. “When my grandfather was still alive, you could support a family on 40 acres of citrus. You can’t do that anymore.

Agritourism combines two of Florida’s biggest industries, agriculture and tourism, to provide visitors with fun things to do on Florida farms. Fall is a great season for locals looking for a rustic getaway.

Common agritourism attractions include take-out groves and orchards, farm tours, and goat yoga, in addition to traditional harvesting activities such as pumpkin patch, hay rides, corn mazes, and haunted trails .

Southern Hills Farms in Clermont derives nearly half of its annual income from its Fall Fest, owner David Hill said.

The company also helps farmers preserve their land from the encroachment of residential and commercial development and educate Floridians about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture, in an engaging way.

“It’s very important for children and families to know that agriculture is the backbone that sustains a community,” Baker said. “Without it, you don’t eat.”

Agritourism has been officially recognized in Florida since 2013, when a law codified the practice allow farmers to use their farmland for such activities without local government restrictions.

As a field crop, the niche has since grown. The Florida Agritourism Association, which helps farmers establish and promote their tourism businesses, has seen an increase in membership over the past five years or so, executive director Lena Juarez said. It currently has over 300 members.

“It’s the farms that want to diversify: maybe they had a bad harvest one year and it’s an economic opportunity for them to close that income gap, or they really appreciate the opportunity for the public to come to their farm and see what’s going on,” Juarez said.

The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic gave farmers a boost as major theme parks and other typical attractions were closed and people sought outdoor activities. Many farms have seen increased visitor numbers since then.

“If you’re in the business of giving people wide open spaces or fresh air, they want it and they take advantage of it,” said John Arnold, owner of Citrus Showcase in Clermont.

Data on the contributions of agritourism to central Florida and the state are limited. The Florida Agritourism Association does not currently track the number of visitors or the revenue the practice brings to the state, Juarez said.

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences also does not keep specific data on agritourism.

Citing federal statistics, the Florida Department of Agriculture said Florida’s revenue from agritourism activities grew from $11 million in 2007 to $27 million in 2017. During the same period , the number of Florida farms offering agritourism activities increased from 281 to 761.

Visit Florida spokeswoman Leslie Pearsall pointed to data compiled by a travel research firm TravelTrak America which found that 1.1% of out-of-state visitors to Florida in 2021 engaged in an agritourism activity. The data does not show where they went or how they spent their money, she said.

Fall festival pumpkins from many local farms may be imported from northern states, but farmers say the fun is local.

Anecdotally, Central Florida farmers say they mostly see local residents visiting, and the volume of tourists fluctuates seasonally based on available crops and agricultural events. Fall and spring are the busiest seasons.

Baker said about 150 people visit Sunsational Farms each day, but fall festivals can draw “a few thousand” visitors. Admission is free for the fiestas, which include markets selling farm produce and produce from local vendors. Admission to the haunted trail is $18.

Southern Hill Farms Fall Festival lasts nearly half of the farm’s six-month operating season and typically attracts around 75,000 to 80,000 people from September through November, Hill said. Tickets, which can sell out days in advance, cost $15.

For some farmers, this year’s harvest celebrations have been disrupted by Track of Hurricane Ian in Central Florida last month.

In Clermont, Showcase of Citrus lost about 20% of its citrus harvest in the hurricane. Arnold said the farm was anticipating crop losses.

Two miles to the northeast, Southern Hill Farms’ peaches and sunflowers “took a hit” and its corn maze was demolished, Hill said. The farm slashed its Fall Festival admission price by $5 this year due to damages because it did not provide visitors with a full experience, he said.

Sunsational Farms co-owner Bill Baker drives the Bee Train filled with kindergarten children from Mt. Dora Christian Academy around his farm in Umatilla, Fla. on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. Sunsational Farms is an example of an agritourism farm in Florida that helps preserve the state's agricultural industry and contribute to the local tourism economy.  (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

Southern Hill Farms was once a commercial grove and opened to the public in 2014. During its first years of operation, Hill said visitors told her they had never seen a farm before.

“Not many people in Orlando knew there were farms nearby – and we’re only 20, 25 minutes from downtown Orlando,” he said.

He found that visitors liked the farm and wanted to spend more time there. Hill said he didn’t expect agritourism to become as big a part of farming operations as it is today, thanks to tourism demand.

“Every time we do something and there’s a lot of cars coming, it’s kind of like ‘Field of Dreams,’ that scene at the end,” Hill said, referring to the baseball movie by 1989. “That’s exactly how I feel every time I see it.”

During the recent field trip to Sunsational Farms, parents and kindergarten teachers from Mount Dora Christian Academy accompanied the children in their activities.

“It’s good for them to learn where their food comes from because at that age they really have no idea but to go to the grocery store,” said Mount Dora resident Melanie Lovett. , as his daughter, Victoria, ran to mount the tractor. pulled train.

Apopka resident Tanisha Cline said the smile on her son Caiden’s face showed he was enjoying his first time on a farm, even as she wondered if the lettuce sprout he had put potted would survive at home.

“We thought we had just come to a pumpkin patch,” she said. “Little did we know this was going to be a big lesson.”

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