By LINDA CHION KENNEY
What started as a mission to host her son’s wedding reception at her family’s farm in Plant City has become so much more for a Hillsborough County woman who today is chairwoman of the Florida Agritourism Association.
It’s a story for the times, as breakneck growth fuels the drive to turn farmland into housing and commercial development, and the market grows for scenic event settings. Meanwhile, photos posted on social media shed the spotlight on farm-based venues, which advance agritourism even further.
“Bringing people out on to the farm, it’s a marriage of agriculture and tourism.” said Michelle Welch, chairwoman of the Florida Agritourism Association, which started in 2012 with 33 founding members, including Welch herself. “We give visitors a place to play and help farms add value to every acre.”
Toward that end, Welch’s Wishing Well Barn in Plant City has been an event venue for roughly 10 years, as the push to expand agritourism continues to advance. Earlier this month, Welch said, she was in Tallahassee to discuss with several agriculture advocates the association’s first statewide conference, scheduled for July 9-11 in Gainesville, at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center.
“The goal is education,” said Welch, whose Tallahassee meetings included a quick conversation with Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson, who himself is an agritourism operator. “We’re going to be talking about best practices for starting and running an agritourism operation, regulatory issues, marketing and branding ideas, financing options, top trends in agritourism and more.”
The aim is to get folks to visit Florida farms, which in turn is the URL address for Welch’s association (www.visitfloridafarms.org). “Explore our Florida adventures,” the website advances, as it notes farms, ranches and vineyards statewide “are opening their gates, barn doors and fences, issuing a heartfelt invitation to sample the abundant bounty and natural beauty found in the state’s growing adventure — agritourism.”
Listings for agritourism offerings include those for aquaculture; events; farmers markets and special crops; crop mazes; orchards; trail riding, hunting and petting; tree farms; u-picks and u-cuts; vineyards, wineries and distilleries; wildlife and birding; and educational experiences.
“Agritourism is good for everybody,” Welch said. “It helps kids understand where their food comes from. It promotes a healthy lifestyle, being outside and eating natural food versus processed foods.”
According to staff analysis for House Bill 717, which Florida legislators unanimously approved in 2022, agritourism includes agricultural-related activities “consistent with a bona fide farm, ranch or in a working forest that allows members of the general public to view or enjoy its activities for recreational, entertainment or educational purposes.” Activity examples include “farming, ranching and historical, cultural or harvest-your-own activities and attractions.”
The analysis notes that the legislature in 2016 declared its intent to promote and perpetuate agritourism statewide. The 2022 bill signed into law in April prohibits the denial or revocation of an agricultural land classification solely due to the conduct of agritourism activity under certain circumstances.
That agritourism is vital in Florida is not lost in the 2022 bill’s analysis, noting that it is “One of the many methods farmers use to diversify and expand their income” at a time when “10,000 acres of land are lost each year to urban development.” According to the analysis, “of Florida’s 35 million acres, almost 10 million are used for farming, and that includes about 47,400 farm operations that together produced cash receipts for around $7.3 billion in 2018.”
Moreover, it’s noted that the “farming business and the number of farms is declining throughout the state,” as evidenced by the fact that “in the 1990’s, the agricultural economy increased only 5 percent compared to 25 percent and 50 percent in previous decades.”
Footnotes attest to the original sources for the bill’s analysis as the movement heats up to grow Florida’s agritourism industry. Keeping farms viable allows for “the legacy of farming to pass down to future generations,” Welch said.
Moreover, “given food scarcity and what we went through with the pandemic, we see the need for people to be outside and to get healthy doses of vitamins C and D,” Welch said. “People are becoming more health conscious, and they’re wanting to get outside more. They’re interested in organic fruits, and they want to know where their foods comes from.”
All told, Welch said, “Now is the perfect time for farmers to consider adding agritourism to what they do.”
For more, visit www.visitfloridafarms.org/. For more on agritourism legislation, visit www.myFloridaHouse.gov/.