Agritourism heats up during winter months

Alice Johnson, 10, picks a ripe grapefruit from a tree at Hilltop Groves. While Florida farms fill the nation’s demand for fresh fruit in winter months, agritourism draws visitors from all over.

When snow buries northern farmlands, Florida’s fields burst with strawberries. And communities hold festivals — which this year will include The Villages’ first multi-day Strawberry Festival — to celebrate the peak of the harvest. Florida farms fill the winter void left by states that can’t grow crops because of cold weather. Because farms are open for business, that means agritourism experiences are possible in the winter months. Pick-your-own or U-pick crops, like strawberries at Back Road Berries in Oxford and oranges at Hilltop Groves in Weirsdale, and seasonal events like strawberry festivals, are just a few examples of how farming and agriculture draw tourist interest this time of year. Florida’s agritourism farms are significant drivers of the farm economy. They generated more than $27 million in income in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Agriculture.

“For a lot of people who aren’t from Florida, they enjoy being able to go outside without dressing like a marshmallow and get fresh food off the field in the freshest form you can get it,” said Matt Smith, sustainable agriculture and small farms agent with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) extension office.

Picking Your Own

At Back Road Berries in Oxford, which draws significant interest from Villagers in part because of its close proximity, Mary Beth Locke offers pick-your-own strawberries as well as pre-picked berries.

Some days there’s not enough berries ripe for the picking to open the farm for U-pick customers, but enough harvested to offer pre-picked, she said.

But as the season progresses, Back Road Berries will be open on more days and for longer hours.

“Everybody is happy to see strawberries are back in season,” she said. “Right now, the strawberries look really good. You just never know with the weather, but it’s looking really promising.”

Back Road Berries is just one of a number of farms in the area offering pick-your-own strawberries, which is a major draw throughout the winter and early spring, Smith said.

That’s because different types of strawberries grow at different points in the season. For instance, one of UF’s newest strawberry cultivars, Brilliance, was developed for early season yields, he said.

Pick-your-own oranges isn’t as common, but Hilltop Groves in Weirsdale offers one such experience for agritourists interested in Florida’s signature crop.

Bill Reed, owner of Hilltop Groves, thinks his current citrus crop, which includes Summerfield navel oranges, tangerines and ruby red grapefruit, is the best he’s had in terms of crop yields and the fruit’s taste.

“They’re real smooth,” he said. “The Summerfield navels that have been around for years, they get to be a real good size.”

Pick-your-own citrus has been “good” since starting in early November, and it has appeal to people who haven’t picked it before, Reed said.

“A lot of people do it,” he said. “And I’ve got a little packinghouse where we can clean it up.”

Pick-your-own farms play a part in fresh fruit crops’ importance to Florida, where oranges and strawberries command the highest economic impact.

 More oranges grow in Florida than any other U.S. state. Florida’s citrus growers grew 52.8 million boxes of oranges in the 2020-21 season, according to the USDA. One box is equal to 90 pounds of oranges, which equates to about 4.7 billion pounds of fresh oranges.

Meanwhile, strawberry growers harvested about 199 million pounds of fresh strawberries in 2020, USDA reported. Florida is second only to California among the nation’s top strawberry growing states.

Nationwide, strawberries are the third-most valuable non-citrus fruit crop, followed by grapes and apples.

Special Events

But the biggest seasonal agritourism draws tied to strawberries are yet to come.

The Villages Strawberry Festival, one of the community’s most popular special events, will feature vendors selling strawberries and strawberry flavored treats like strawberry shortcake. This year’s festival will be the first to run for more than one day, and is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Feb. 26 and 27.

It typically comes before an onslaught of strawberry events statewide in early to mid-March, the biggest of which is the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. This year’s is scheduled for March 3-13.

“Like most fairs and festivals, the Florida Strawberry Festival represents a piece of Americana, a time in American history when events like ours brought communities together to celebrate the harvest,” said Paul Davis, president of the Florida Strawberry Festival, in a statement.

Last year’s Florida Strawberry Festival drew about 402,000 visitors to Plant City, considered the winter strawberry capital of the world.

While strawberry festivals are among the most lucrative agritourism events to come, the holidays also offered opportunities.

Farms like Sunsational Farms in Umatilla and Raprager Family Farm in Odessa dressed up for winter festivals to celebrate Christmas. Sunsational Farms’ event included a snow slide for snow tubing.

Whispering Oaks Winery in Oxford, a long-established agritourism spot known for its blueberry wines, held a New Year’s Eve party that included winery tours and wine tastings.

These events are examples of how farms and agribusinesses take advantage of Florida’s mild climate to offer experiences visitors may not have a chance to experience back home in the winter months, Smith said.

“It’s gorgeous this time of year,” he said. “I have relatives who live in Ohio and are super envious right now. The ground’s not frozen — what more could you ask for?”

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