With less than 2% of the American population now living on farms, many people have become increasingly disconnected from the intricate world of agriculture and food production. Consumers are showing a growing curiosity about where their food comes from and the technology behind its cultivation. Agritourism is emerging as a promising way to bridge this gap by offering the public a chance to witness or participate in various farming, ranching, historical, cultural, or “harvest-your-own” experiences on real farms, ranches, or operational forests. Essentially, it’s the perfect blend of Florida’s two major industries: tourism and agriculture. Whether you’re picking your own produce, navigating corn mazes, exploring pumpkin patches, or enjoying farm-to-table dining experiences, agritourism offers both delightful and educational farm-based adventures. This article provides an overview of the exciting world of agritourism.
A young girl picking an orange from a tree. Photo taken 12-05-16. UF/IFAS Photo by Camila Guillen
WHY CONSIDER AGRITOURISM
Farm tourism is a growing industry in the U.S., with many Americans spending on recreational activities on farms.
Agritourism supports environmental conservation and wildlife by requiring land management for activities like wildlife photography, bird watching, and fishing.
There are economic incentives available from federal and non-profit organizations for setting aside land for wildlife conservation.
Agritourism offers social benefits to local communities, providing opportunities to educate the public about agriculture and promoting local sustainable markets.
Before embarking on an agritourism venture, it’s essential to be well-informed about the associated advantages and disadvantages.
In addition to traditional agritourism activities like horseback riding, U-pick fields, and bed-and-breakfasts, many farmers have expanded their offerings to attract visitors. These new ideas encompass a wide range of experiences, including corn mazes, informative farm tours, farm museums, seasonal or holiday festivals, nature trails, hayrides, fee-based hunting or fishing opportunities, camping experiences, corporate picnics, engaging farm zoos, and more. To enhance the success of your agritourism operation, it’s crucial to create a distinctive experience. This entails not only the core tourism activity but also the provision of special services such as facilities, educational signs, convenient parking, informative newsletters, and memorable souvenirs like T-shirts. Additionally, the atmosphere cultivated by you and your staff plays a pivotal role in leaving a lasting and positive impression on your visitors. Consider developing a plan before getting started.
Farm raised alpacas. Photo taken 11-9-17. UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones
KEYS TO DEVELOPING A PLAN
Clarify your goals and identify the advantages you hope to gain from launching an agritourism venture.
Familiarize yourself with nearby tourism activities and consider cooperation with local attractions rather than rivalry.
Create a detailed business plan that outlines your mission, financial requirements, available resources, and strategies.
Determine your ideal audience to attract visitors effectively.
Be aware of legal considerations and acquire liability insurance to protect your operation.
Develop a visitor management strategy.
Establish acceptable levels of human impact on your property and implement measures to maintain those limits.
Continuously assess the costs and benefits of your agritourism venture.
Pumpkins in a wagon in a pumpkin patch. Photo taken 10-06-18. UF/IFAS Photo by Camila Guillen
THE PANHANDLE’S AGRICULTURAL HERITAGE
The panhandle has been a hub for the cultivation of crops like cotton, tobacco, and peanuts. Throughout the centuries, the Panhandle’s farming traditions have evolved, adapting to the challenges posed by climate, soil conditions, and economic shifts. Today, the agricultural heritage of the Florida Panhandle continues to thrive, with modern farmers diversifying their crops and embracing sustainable practices to ensure the legacy of farming endures for generations to come. Agritourism often celebrates and preserves the rich agricultural traditions and practices of the Panhandle region. Agritourism offers a unique and enriching experience that allows individuals to connect with the roots of agriculture while enjoying the beauty of rural landscapes. For more information on starting an agritourism operation, visit the tourism section of the Small Farms & Alternative Enterprises website (https://smallfarm.ifas.ufl.edu/direct-marketing-value-added/agritourism/) or contact your local county extension office.
October has been designated as Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation month by Walton County government. Walton County is home to 15 named coastal dune lakes along 26 miles of coastline. These lakes are a unique geographical feature and are only found in a few places in the world including Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon, and here in Walton County.
A coastal dune lake is defined as a shallow, irregularly shaped or elliptic depressions occurring in coastal communities that share an intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico through which freshwater and saltwater is exchanged. They are generally permanent water bodies, although water levels may fluctuate substantially. Typically identified as lentic water bodies without significant surface inflows or outflows, the water in a dune lake is largely derived from lateral ground water seepage through the surrounding well-drained coastal sands. Storms occasionally provide large inputs of salt water and salinities vary dramatically over the long term.
Our coastal dune lakes are even more unique because they share an intermittent connection with the Gulf of Mexico, referred to as an “outfall”, which aides in natural flood control allowing the lake water to pour into the Gulf as needed. The lake water is fed by streams, groundwater seepage, rain, and storm surge. Each individual lake’s outfall and chemistry is different. Water conditions between lakes can vary greatly, from completely fresh to significantly saline.
A variety of different plant and animal species can be found among the lakes. Both freshwater and saltwater species can exist in this unique habitat. Some of the plant species include: rushes (Juncus spp.), sedges (Cyperus spp.), marshpennywort (Hydrocotyleumbellata), cattails (Typha spp.), sawgrass (Cladiumjamaicense), waterlilies (Nymphaea spp.), watershield (Braseniaschreberi), royal fern (Osmundaregalis var. spectabilis), rosy camphorweed (Pluchea spp.), marshelder (Ivafrutescens), groundsel tree (Baccharishalimifolia), and black willow (Salixnigra).
Some of the animal species that can be found include: western mosquitofish (Gambusiaaffinis), sailfin molly (Poecilialatipinna), American alligator (Alligatormississippiensis), eastern mud turtle (Kinosternonsubrubrum), saltmarsh snake (Nerodiaclarkii ssp.), little blue heron (Egrettacaerulea), American coot (Fulicaamericana), and North American river otter (Lutracanadensis). Many marine species co-exist with freshwater species due to the change in salinity within the column of water.
The University of Florida/IFAS Extension faculty are reintroducing their acclaimed “Panhandle Outdoors LIVE!” series. Come celebrate Coastal Dune Lake Appreciation month as our team provides a guided walking tour of the nature trail surrounding Western Lake in Grayton Beach State Park. Join local County Extension Agents to learn more about our globally rare coastal dune lakes, their history, surrounding ecosystems, and local protections. Walk the nature trail through coastal habitats including maritime hammocks, coastal scrub, salt marsh wetlands, and coastal forest. A tour is available October 19th.
The tour is $10.00 (plus tax) and you can register on Eventbrite (see link below). Admission into the park is an additional $5.00 per vehicle, so carpooling is encouraged. We will meet at the beach pavilion (restroom facilities available) at 8:45 am with a lecture and tour start time of 9:00 am sharp. The nature trail is approximately one mile long, through some sandy dunes (can be challenging to walk in), on hard-packed trails, and sometimes soggy forests. Wear appropriate footwear and bring water. Hat, sunscreen, camera, binoculars are optional. Tour is approximately 2 hours. Tour may be cancelled in the event of bad weather.
When we moved to the Florida Panhandle in 1989 and bought a house in Wakulla County, my wife and I inherited a grape arbor that was planted by the original builder of the home many years previous. It consisted of three 4×4 posts with cross pieces at the top and a run of heavy gauge wire out near the ends of each cross piece. Maintenance had been lacking for some years so the vines had grown into a massive tangle which at first glance, I surmised I would end up cutting down to help improve the appearance of the property. Well, as is often the case, timing is everything and the existence to this day of that grape arbor, is due to the fact that it was late summer and the vines had some fruit on them. It only took one taste of a sweet, flavorful black muscadine grape to decide they were worth keeping. Little did I know what I was in for though, when it came to properly managing this “wildling” for a productive, beautiful arbor; one that now provides many culinary options, as well as a pleasing, eye-catching aspect in our home landscape.
After looking closer at the vines, it appeared that there were two different species of grapes growing. The very dark purple (almost black) muscadines, were dwarfed by much larger greenish-bronze grapes at one end of the arbor. I now know that these grapes are typically referred to as scuppernongs by most locals and they are actually the same species as the dark grapes. In fact, Vitus rotundifolia is the scientific name for our native wild grapes that have a range from Florida to New Jersey in the east, and west to Texas and Oklahoma. The fruits of this species can be bronze, black or red, depending on the cultivar and they are the same species I remembered picking from wild vines as a youth, which ranged in size from ¼ to ½ inch and were often quite tart. Currently, there are about 150 cultivars of muscadine grapes grown for their fruit and their innate resistance to pests and diseases.
The reason for the two varieties on our grape arbor had to do with the fact that many muscadines produce only pistillate flowers and require pollen from another variety to produce fruit. A few varieties have perfect flowers and can produce fruit on their own, notably Carlos and Noble. Writings about these native grapes date back to the early 1500’s as early explorers of the Cape Fear River Valley in modern-day North Carolina described its abundance and pleasing qualities. The common name “scuppernong” is derived from the Scuppernong River in North Carolina but the name has many variations depending on the locale (scuplin, scufalum, scupanon, scupadine, scuppernine, scupnun, and scufadine). The word “scuppernong” comes from the Algonquian “askuponong,” meaning “place of the askupo,” which is the sweet bay tree (Magnolia virginiana). Cultivation has been recorded as early as the 17th century and with over 100 years of breeding, several bronze cultivars such as Carlos, Doreen, Magnolia and Triumph, are distinguished by having perfect flowers. There is one particular vine on Roanoke Island North Carolina that is considered by many to be the “Mother Vine” for all modern day varieties. This vine has been cultivated for around 400 years, to-date.
Dark purple muscadine grapes are often called “black grapes.”
If by this time, you are working up a craving for a taste of muscadines, you are not alone because late-summer is the peak production period for many vines around the region. If you do not have your own vines, you are still able to get these grapes at several places around our area. Visit this link for a list of wineries and vineyards in Florida, some of which run u-pick operations. Or you may even have a nearby neighbor with an abundance of fruit and generosity. Some cultivated varieties are suitable for table fare as they have fewer seeds and thinner skins. The tougher-skinned varieties are suitable for jellies, jams, grape butter, and wine making. Bronze scuppernongs produce a very light-colored wine with a mild fruity flavor, while the dark purple muscadines derive a dark reddish, and stronger flavored wine. No matter the type of muscadine, they all provide important habitat and food for many wild critters as well. Thankfully, they generally produce enough bounty to go around and I never begrudge the opossums, raccoons, squirrels and birds their share of the blessing.
The Florida Master Naturalist Program is an adult education University of Florida/IFAS Extension program. Training will benefit persons interested in learning more about Florida’s environment or wishing to increase their knowledge for use in education programs as volunteers, employees, ecotourism guides, and others.
Through classroom, field trip, and practical experience, each module provides instruction on the general ecology, habitats, vegetation types, wildlife, and conservation issues of Coastal, Freshwater and Upland systems. Additional special topics focus on Conservation Science, Environmental Interpretation, Habitat Evaluation, Wildlife Monitoring and Coastal Restoration. For more information go to: http://www.masternaturalist.ifas.ufl.edu/ Okaloosa and Walton Counties will be offering Upland Systems on Thursdays from February 15- March 22. Topics discussed include Hardwood Forests, Pinelands, Scrub, Dry Prairie, Rangelands and Urban Green Spaces. The program also addresses society’s role in uplands, develops naturalist interpretation skills, and discusses environmental ethics. Check the website for a Course Offering near you :http://conference.ifas.ufl.edu/fmnp/
The Ocheesee Creamery in Calhoun County Florida participates in the annual regional Farm Tour highlighting a number of agritourism opportunities in North Florida. Photo Credit: Ocheesee Creamery
It seems each weekend this time of year is packed with things to do outside; and for good reason! The weather is perfect and the holidays are approaching. Among the many festivals and festivities are a number of farm tours, or “agritourism” related events. For example, there was the recent Tallahassee and surrounding area “10th Annual Farm Tour: “Farms, Gardens and Ranches,” and Jackson County just hosted the annual “Antique Tractor Drive” as part of its Farm City Festival.
The Merriam Webster definition of “Agritourism” is “the practice of touring agricultural areas to see farms and often to participate in farm activities.” More specifically, pursuant to Florida Statute 570.961 the definition of agritourism in Florida is “any agricultural related activity consistent with a bona fide farm or ranch or in a working forest which allows members of the general public to view or enjoy activities related to farming, ranching, historical, cultural or harvest-your-own attractions for recreational, entertainment or educational purposes.”
North Florida is home to a rich agricultural industry. Photo Credit Judy Biss
Panhandle Florida is an agriculturally diverse region growing everything from row crops like cotton, corn, soybeans, and peanuts to hay, timber, beef cattle, dairy cattle, fruit, vegetables, and even shellfish along the coast. Many farms are beginning to offer agritourism related opportunities as a means to increase income, but also to increase awareness of the importance of agriculture, in its many diverse ways, to our lives.
Many farms and ranches also have large tracts of land that are left uncultivated and serve as natural areas for surrounding fish and wildlife. Because of this, many farms are not only prime candidates for agritourism, but “ecotourism” as well. In addition to our numerous national forests and state parks many private landowners also have the potential to market their natural areas through ecotourism. This, also, is a relatively new industry in Florida, and more can be read about it here: Ecotourism
Wakulla Springs is home to some of the best wildlife watching in all of northwest Florida. It’s not unusual to see manatees, alligators, and dozens of species of birds in one boat trip. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson
What do you imagine when the word “ecotourism” comes to mind? I know I usually daydream about a trip my husband I took to Costa Rica several years ago, surrounded by lush tropical rainforests as we ziplined through the canopy. I might also think about visiting a National Park, following a neatly maintained trail and stopping at signs placed at just the right spot so visitors can read and understand the special features of the place. Ecotourism, done right, brings a visitor to a unique place, tells its story, and immerses the visitor in the sights and sounds in a way that treads lightly on the location. I always know I’ve been on a good ecotour when I’m tired, happy, and have learned or seen something new.
A colleague with The Conservation Fund has stated that sustainable tourism includes: “Authentic experiences that are unique and specialized to the place (its culture, heritage, and natural resources), emphasizes quality over quantity, focuses on distinctive destinations, unspoiled landscapes, and historic buildings, and differs from mass-market tourism by favoring locally-owned businesses, thereby increasing circulation of money in the local economy.” The truly wonderful thing about ecotourism is that local touch; it exists solely because of the place, so it cannot be outsourced. The best storytellers about those places are usually the people who have lived there for many years, so by its very nature, ecotourism provides jobs for local residents.
A few years ago, several Extension Agents received funding for a project called Naturally EscaRosa. The idea behind that project was to help promote and create businesses that sustainably used our agricultural and natural resources. The website (www.naturallyescarosa.com) has a list of over 100 businesses and locations where locals and out-of-town visitors can explore the less well-traveled areas of Escambia and Santa Rosa County. As you move east down the coast, Walton Outdoors, the local Visit Florida affiliates, and other privately managed media groups have done similar work, providing a showcase for these treasures in our midst.
This summer, try one of the local ecotourism or agritourism venues near you! Moreover, when your friends and family visit from out of town, encourage them to do the same. We cannot have a successful economy without a healthy ecosystem, and supporting these local and regional businesses is good for both.
For more information on sustainable ecotourism, visit the Society for Ethical Ecotourism (SEE), and for information on starting or visiting an agritourism business, try Visit Florida Farms. And as always, reach out to your local County Extension agents, and we will be more than happy to point you in the right direction to discover to places to explore with your family.