Fall festivals help Central Florida farms stay green with cash

UMATILLA — On an unseasonably cold October morning in Central Florida, farmer Bill Baker waited for a kindergarten group to finish touring the greenhouses at Sunsational Farms in Umatilla.

Today’s young people canned heads of lettuce, rode a train pulled by a tractor and picked mini pumpkins. Sunsational is one of the few farms in Central Florida that grows its own pumpkins, Baker proudly claims.

On the other side of the field is the dominant structure of the Lake County farm “Big Orange” with the seasonal smile of a lantern between hay bales piled with pumpkins and the Halloween scarecrow of Dr. Grimley’s Haunted Trail. The walls of the haunted maze are made of stacked plastic citrus containers, Baker says.

Sunsational Farm’s fall events are one of its main sources of income and help keep it running. 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 what 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 largest industries, agriculture and tourism, to offer visitors fun activities on Florida farms. Fall is a big season for locals looking for a rustic escape.

Common agritourism attractions include groves and orchards, farm tours and goat yoga, in addition to traditional harvest time activities such as pumpkin patches, hayrides, corn mazes and haunted trails.

Southern Hill Farms in Clermont makes nearly half of its annual income from the fall festival, owner David Hill said.

The business also helps farmers protect their land from encroachment by residential and commercial development and educates Floridians about where their food comes from and the importance of agriculture in an engaging way.

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

Sunsational Farms co-owner Bill Baker hands Harvey Moore, 5, a pumpkin to take home from a kindergarten field trip with his classmates at Mt.  Dora Christian Academy in Umatilla, Fla., Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. Sunsational Farms is an example of an agritourism farm in Florida that helps preserve the state's agricultural industry and contributes to the local tourism economy.  (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

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

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

“These are farms that want to diversify: maybe they had a bad crop one year and it’s an economic opportunity for them to bridge that income gap, or they just really enjoy 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 attendance since then.

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

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

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

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

Visit Florida spokeswoman Leslie Pearsall pointed to data collected by travel research company TravelTrak America, which found that in 2021, 1.1% of foreign visitors to Florida were engaged in agritourism activities. The data doesn’t show where they visited or how they spent their money, she said.

The pumpkins at many local farms’ fall festivals may be imported from upstate, but farmers say the fun is homegrown.

Anecdotally, Central Florida farmers say they mostly see visits from locals, and the volume of tourists varies seasonally based on available crops and farm events. Fall and spring are the busiest times.

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

Southern Hill Farms’ Fall Festival is almost half the time The farm’s six-month operating season and typically brings in around 75,000 to 80,000 people from September to November, Hill said. Tickets, which can sell out days in advance, are $15.

For some farmers, this year’s harvest celebrations were disrupted by Hurricane Ian as it barreled through Central Florida last month.

In Clermont, Showcase of Citrus lost approximately 20% of its citrus crop to the hurricane. Arnold said the farm plans ahead for crop loss.

Two miles northeast, Southern Hill Farms’ peaches and sunflowers “took a beating” and their corn maze was destroyed, Hill said. Due to the damage, the farm reduced the admission price to the fall festival by $5 this year because it wasn’t offering visitors the full experience, he said.

Sunsational Farms co-owner Bill Baker drives a bee train full of nurseries from Mt.  Dora Christian Academy around its farm in Umatilla, Fla., Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. Sunsational Farms is an example of an agritourism farm in Florida that helps preserve the state's agricultural industry and contributes to the local tourism economy.  (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

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

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

He found that visitors loved the farm and wanted to spend more time there. Hill said he never expected agritourism to become as big a part of farming operations as it is today, thanks to tourist demand.

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

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

“It’s nice for them to learn where their food comes from because at this age they really have no idea other than going to the grocery store,” Mount Dora resident Melanie Lovett said as her daughter Victoria ran to ride the tractor. towed train.

Apopka resident Tanisha Cline said the smile on her son Caiden’s face showed he was loving the farm for the first time, even as she questioned whether the lettuce sprout he was watering would survive at their home.

“We thought we were just coming into the pumpkin patch,” she said. “We didn’t realize it was going to be a great lesson.

[email protected] and @katievrice on Twitter

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