How Florida Growers Are Agritaining and Gaining

Nearly 113 million people! That mind-blowing figure represents the number of tourists the Sunshine State welcomed last year, according to statistics from Visit Florida. Not an anomaly, the number marked the sixth consecutive record-breaking year in that regard.

So, where are all those people going? Many, of course, flock to the beaches. Droves drive to Disney. And yes, a fair share visit farms. A lot of you are aware of that fact. According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture data, more than 700 farming operations in Florida offer some kind of agritainment. The segment continues to surge and evolve as new waves of opportunity come knocking at the door each and every year.

While the concept of Agritourism is not new, how farm operations benefit varies. There are ongoing farm management problems that Agritourism can help address, suggests Derek Farnsworth, a UF/IFAS Food & Resource Economics Researcher. Regarding trends in Agritourism, Farnsworth says he’s spoken to a number of growers who share a common success story. “Rising labor costs have made U-Pick operations especially appealing,” Farnsworth says. “It cuts out the middle man and saves on labor expenses.”

While saving on labor is reason enough to consider adding a U-Pick, most farms still employ agritainment for the extra income.

Sykes and Cooper Farms 2016 Corn Maze in Elkton, FL
Fun fact: The popular corn maze attraction at Sykes and Cooper Farms in Elkton, FL, isn’t actually corn. According to the farm, sorghum is used for its durability.
Photo courtesy of Sykes and Cooper Farms

Strength in Numbers

When it comes to Agritourism making a true impact for local growers, the Tri-County Agricultural Area (TCAA) is a standout in the state — and for good reason, says Bonnie C. Wells, Doctor of Plant Medicine and St. Johns County UF/IFAS Commercial Agriculture Extension Agent.

Based in St. Augustine, Wells is uniquely situated to witness the daily interactions that occur at the crossroads of farming and tourism. “Hastings agriculture was created to grow and provide fresh, local produce for all the snowbirds that visited the high-end hotels Henry Flagler built in downtown St. Augustine,” she says. “And still today, St. Augustine depends on Hastings and the surrounding area. We have ag, and we definitely have tourists. So naturally, Agritourism works.”

The majority of the farms in the TCAA are smaller operations, so Agritourism is an important part of an overall business model. Collaboration and cooperation among neighboring farms is a successful formula. In the TCAA, this is happening, Wells says. “The more farms in ag areas that open their gates and welcome the public to explore, tour, and learn how their food is produced, the more of a synergistic effect and a stronger impact local agriculture will have on the community.”

Sykes and Cooper Farms in Elkton is as a prime example of making the best of what’s around them. Having deep roots in the area primarily from potatoes, the long-standing family farm has diversified its crop portfolio (now Asian veggies) and business structure in recent years. In 2010, it looked to agritainment as a supplement. The venture has since turned into a full-blown enterprise as Wells confirms the operation’s success with its Agritourism offerings. “Their corn maze attracts thousands of visitors each October, which substantially enhances their farm’s profitability,” she notes.

From amusement-park-sized attractions and corn mazes, to cozy roadside farm stands, and everything else between, there are other parts of the Agritourism spectrum that fit different budgets and tastes.

Rype & Readi market in St. Augustine, FL
Rype & Readi’s farm market in downtown St. Augustine is ideally located to take advantage of hungry hipsters from nearby Flagler College.
Photo by Paul Rusnak

Rype & Readi, which is just down the road from Sykes, is a relatively newcomer to the area, having been established there for less than five years. However, Wells notes the owners scored big when it comes to being strategically located for success. Jean-Sebastien Gros, Operating Partner for Rype & Readi, concurs and says making a move from South Florida to set up a community of farm-to-table-based businesses in the heart of the TCAA was a no-brainer. “This particular area really appealed to us because of the population center. And at the same time, you have this rich, agricultural land that is multigenerational in history,” Gros explains.

Specialty vegetable farm market display
Rype & Readi’s farm market showcases fresh produce grown on its own farm as well as from other local growers.
Photo by Paul Rusnak

Rype & Readi features a 22-acre farm where hydroponic herbs and lettuce are grown, and serves as a site where the public is invited to come, see, learn, and do. Gros says they often play host to farm feasts, have a petting zoo, and welcome field trips — lots of them. “Last October alone, we had 17 field trips of local elementary schools.”

Amid the success, Gros recognizes the importance and value brought to the table by teaming up with local growers and chefs. “We’re all working together to find ways to add value to each other’s products.”

Though Gros has many years of business experience fueled by a love for farming, he says the Agritourism/agritainment part of the equation has kept things fresh. “For us, it’s a lot of fun. We’re looking to grow the concept.”

So far, so good as Rype & Readi’s sister location — a retail market in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic district — is feeding off the farm’s success and reaping rewards of a steady sales flow.

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