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The formula appears simple enough: Take Florida’s No. 1 economic sector, tourism; mix with the state’s second-biggest sector, agriculture. Voila! — agritourism.
The Polk County Cooperative Extension Service in Bartow took its first foray into agritourism on Friday with a daylong blueberry tour that began at Shady Oaks Fruit Farm, a Lakeland blueberry grower; proceeded to True Blue Winery in Davenport, also a blueberry grower that makes its own blueberry wine; and finished at the Wm. G. Roe & Sons Inc. packinghouse in Eloise.
The first effort attracted just a dozen people, mostly members of the local news media, but Mary Beth Henry, the extension agent for small farms, maintained her resolve.
“It takes a couple starts for people to know what’s happening,” she said.
Peach, Honey Tours
The Extension Service is planning peach and honey tours later this year, Henry said, and others may come depending upon the season. The Florida blueberry harvest generally runs from late March to early May.
The small farms program has taken the lead in developing agritourism because, like Shady Oaks with 10 acres of blueberries, most tours happen on small farms. The tourists can be another source of income for small farmers, Henry said.
U-pick operations like Shady Oaks and True Blue can become a particularly attractive draw for agritourists, she said.
Polk is particularly well-suited to take advantage of the growing agritourism trend not only because of its tradition as an agricultural county, Henry said. That includes its rank as Florida’s largest citrus producer, having the fourth-largest cattle company and being a significant grower of tomatoes, blueberries and tropical fish.
Polk also has major tourist destinations, such as Legoland in Winter Haven and Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, that could draw visitors to a day or two of agritourism, she added.
“Because of Legoland and its ability to draw young kids and their families, we’re working on itineraries that include U-picks that would be attractive to them,” said Jessica Roberts of Visit Central Florida, the county’s tourism agency, who took the blueberry tour.
Agritourism is a natural extension for tourists interested in nature and outdoor sports, such as bass fishing, hiking, birding and golf, that have long been Polk’s strong suits, she said.
The agency has an agritourism page on its website, www.visitcentralflorida.org/find/agritourism#.
Agritourism got a big boost last year when the Legislature passed a law limiting liability for injuries and even deaths at farms hosting tourists, Henry said.
Previously, liability was a major concern, particularly for small farmers.
Whether they host tourists or not, Florida farmers will benefit from the agritourism because it educates urban residents about the challenges all agriculture operations face, she added.
That aspect particularly attracted Fatima Gill, who owns True Blue Winery and H&F Blueberry Farm Inc. with her husband, Howard.
“I hope they learn something about how farmers work. It’s a job,” she said. “They don’t know how hard it is to work in the field.”
The participants took a survey at the end of the tour that included questions on that issue.
“One of the things we’re looking for is: ‘Did the tour change their perceptions of agriculture?’ ” Henry said. “This definitely has the potential to impact that perception.”
Another aim of the blueberry tour was to interest people in starting their own small blueberry farms.
Participants learned about production issues at Shady Oaks and True Blue, and sales and marketing at the Roe packinghouse.
That aspect of Friday’s tour may have paid off in at least a couple of cases.
“I came on the tour because I was interested in starting my own blueberry farm,” said Joe Ramirez, 41, who runs a family landscaping company. He came away with a positive impression.
“There’s not as much stress as the landscaping business,” he said.
Bill Henderson of Polk City, who came with his wife, Karen, also was impressed.
The Hendersons had tried unsuccessfully to grow blueberries on their 5-acre property about four years ago, Bill Henderson said.
He discovered some of the mistakes he made, such as not spreading pine bark below the blueberry bushes, a standard technique to increase soil acidity that promotes growth.
“I learned you’ve got to get the pH (acidity level) right,” Henderson said. “Oh, yeah, I’ll try again.”
[Kevin Bouffard can be reached at email@example.com or at 863-401-6980. Read more on Florida citrus on his Facebook page, Florida Citrus Witness, http://bit.ly/baxWuU.