Florida’s farms offer more than just food

Patrons Pam Bulloch and Frank Petrillo enjoy lunch with wine at Whispering Oaks Winery.

When Jessica Lee planned her wedding last fall, she knew she wanted to have it on a farm. A drive past the natural scenery and vast blueberry fields at Whispering Oaks Winery in Oxford inspired her to get married there. That same beauty meant her ceremony didn’t require a lot of flowers. Whispering Oaks’ foray into organizing weddings shows one way Florida farmers are turning to agritourism as a way to live off their land beyond the obvious means of raising livestock and growing crops. For Whispering Oaks, their venture has them booked up for weddings until 2022. And they’re not the only ones with eager visitors. Agritourism is one of the fastest growing segments of tourism in Florida, said Lena Juarez, executive director of the Florida Agritourism Association. Tourists are visiting Florida farms to experience what they have to offer, whether it’s farm and winery tours, pick-your-own fruits or horseback riding.

This time of year in particular is special. Many farms offer fall activities such as pumpkin patches, corn mazes and haunted houses.

Some think outside the box.

Huckleberry Farms in Flagler County offers a program called “Goats + Yoga”, which is designed to connect people with the farm’s goats, horses and rabbits. Locally, venues such as Whispering Oaks and Long and Scott Farms offer events like tours or a corn maze.

Meanwhile, Lake Catherine Blueberries, a 97-year-old family farm, hosted Groveland’s Fourth of July celebration for the past two years.

From wine to weddings

In 2012, there were 724 agritourism farms statewide, but they only generated about $15.7 million, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In the 2017 Census, released in April, there were a few more farms — 761.

But they were generating $27 million in income, nearly twice the revenue.

Juarez thinks the growth is because more farms are doing more activities. 

Since the 2012 Census, Whispering Oaks has begun its wedding business, as well as other events.

When Darryl and Erinn Siemer purchased the winery in May 2018 from its founder, the late Johannes Vanderwey, they valued it for its 60 acres of blueberries, open acres and the beauty of its rural scenery.

They didn’t think of it as a site for weddings — but those same reasons helped sell it as one.

The venue is cheaper than many other venues’ price points, Darryl said, explaining why there was interest in weddings there.

Today, weddings at the winery are becoming as important to the Siemers’ business as operating the winery and growing blueberries for its blueberry wines. They even hired a former country club manager as a director of operations for the winery’s weddings and special events.

What drew Lee to the winery for her wedding was its natural scenery. Holding it around sunset added to the beauty, she said.

“We were able to get the natural sunlight for the wedding ceremony, and the reception was pretty neat,” Lee said. “My wedding couldn’t be more perfect.”

People who come to Florida want to see the farms for outdoorsy, off-the-beaten-path experiences, Juarez said.

And farmers, ranchers and growers see agritourism as a way to showcase the strengths of their land.

“Farmers have different motivations for starting a new business, whether it’s a crop that didn’t do well, or they see an opportunity and want to do that,” Juarez said. “They want to invite the public to see their beautiful land.”

Weddings draw out-of-state visitors in families and friends of the bride and groom. But so far, all the couples that got married at Whispering Oaks are from the Orlando and Tampa areas, Darryl said. Lee, for instance, lives in Oxford.

But agritourism at Whispering Oaks involves more than weddings.

The winery offers wine tours at the top of the hour every weekend. Its Friday steak nights, a tradition that started under Vanderwey’s ownership, remain popular.

All these activities aim to enhance the experience on the land to encourage people to visit, Darryl said.

“We have one goal in mind: To get people here to try the blueberries and the blueberry wine,” he said.

Holiday Agritourism

Right now, farms across Florida are opening up pumpkin patches and corn mazes. The tri-county area is no exception, with Timberline Farm in Belleview kicking off its 10th annual Fall Festival and Pumpkin Patch on Friday.

During the festival, visitors can munch on boiled peanuts and participate in activities such as carnival games, hay and pony rides, and browse craft vendors.

Long and Scott Farms in Zellwood, known for its sweet corn, creates a maze from its vast cornfields every fall. This year will mark the farm’s 16th year with a maze; it opened for the season Saturday.

“Especially for people in Florida, when they hear fall and pumpkins, they get excited whether it’s cool or not,” said Rebecca Tyndall, the farm’s agritourism manager. “It’s a fun day at the farm, it’s outside and you get fresh air and sunshine. Every farm does what they can do.”

Getting people to see the farm is important to Tyndall. Seeing it teaches people young and old where their food comes from, she said.

With or without the maze, Long and Scott often comes up as an agritourism destination in the tri-county area. Last year, it was one of the stops on the University of Florida Lake County Extension Office’s annual Lake County Farm Tour, a guided bus tour offering a chance to see what area agribusinesses offer.

Past farms on the tours included an Arabian horse farm, a tissue culture nursery that grows cloned plants from rootstocks, a craft moonshine distillery in Yalaha and Bountiful Farms in Okahumpka, a vendor at the Brownwood Farmers Market.

Not everyone waits until fall to start hosting events. Dustin Lowe, co-owner of Lake Catherine Blueberries in Groveland, keeps up with the seasons and offers holiday experiences that get people to visit outside of blueberry season.

Right now, it’s a fall festival that includes a pumpkin patch, corn maze and a haunted Halloween maze.

But during Easter, it’s an Easter egg hunt.

And for the past two years during the Fourth of July, Lowe’s farm — where his family grew citrus for almost a century — was the site of Groveland’s fireworks display.

“They moved the entire event here,” he said.

In the 12 years that Lake Catherine operated as a spring farm that depends on the blueberry harvest, Lowe noticed many of his customers enjoyed spending time on the farm just to hang out.

“They wondered if they could hang out at different times of the year,” he said.

Whether it’s simply to hang out, or get lost in a corn maze, or even get married, Juarez said agritourism experiences all have a common link: It’s about giving people a true Florida experience to remember.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.