Santa Rosa builds agritourism connections


  • September 15, 2015
  • /   Louis Cooper
  • /   economy

Holland Farms has seen its business expand to include building a new barn through agriculture-based tourism work. Photo credit: Julia White.

The coasts and waterways of Santa Rosa County have been drawing visitors for decades, but another area of the county has been gathering attention from those looking for a new recreational experience: the agricultural north.

Farmers from rural communities like Jay, Berrydale and Allentown have grown their businesses by expanding into an economic niche called “agritourism.” It is becoming an increasingly important component of broadening the area’s tourism industry.

Bed tax collections, often used as one of the ways to gauge the health of the tourism market, is one of the 16 metrics in the Studer Community Institute’s Metro Dashboard, a group of data points that help gauge the economic, educational and social well-being of the greater Pensacola area.

Bed tax collections in Santa Rosa have nearly doubled since 2010, says Karen Harrell, who leads marketing efforts for the Beaches to Woodlands Tour, which promotes agritourism events in the county through the month of October.

It’s hard to know if Beaches to Woodlands is the sole reason, but the increased focus on activities during that time frame is certainly significant, Harrell said.

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The Beaches to Woodlands Tour includes the Jay Peanut Festival, Sweet Season Farms Corn Maze and Fall Fun Festival, Holland Farms Pumpkin Patch & Maze, Coldwater Garden Workshops and Clear Creek Farm Tours.

“When we started our corn maze seven years ago people thought we were crazy," said Trent Matthews, who owns Sweet Season Farms in Allentown. "Some folks even laughed at the notion that people would drive to the country to visit a farm.”

The event’s success, however, had folks thinking he was a genius.

“I think our market was hungry for some family fun and a chance to enjoy time with their kids on a farm for a day each fall,” said Matthews, who has attended conferences to study and discuss agritourism.

“In general, I’ve found that the public is very supportive of farmers and agriculture.  They want to meet the families that grow their food and be able to talk to us about our lifestyle and production.”

That sought-after connection with authentic people is at the heart of the agri-tourism phenomenon, says Andrew Holdnak, a professor of hospitality, recreation and resort management at the University of West Florida.

"Two of the major reasons tourists travel are: First, a search for novelty, to see new and exciting things – Vegas, Disney World, etc. These are the folks parasailing and jet skiing down here," Holdnak said. "The second is a search for authenticity. These folks want to see the 'real world.' City folks often think that the rural life is the 'real world.'"

Inspiration from other communities

Holdnak has written a paper on agritourism at citrus farms in Florida and conducted a study of the Spoon River Drive in central Illinois, an event similar to the Beaches to Woodlands Tour.  Like Beaches to Woodlands, the Spoon River Drive connects smaller events in a community to create greater interest.

"They have 10-plus communities which have agriculture-based events during the first two weeks of October," Holdnak said. "The idea is that each community may have a small draw to their individual events – maybe the visitors could see it all in one hour or less – but if they link communities through a scenic drive, the experience becomes more substantial and worthwhile for the potential visitors.

Spoon River is the hometown of former Santa Rosa County Commissioner Gordon Goodin who helped introduce the idea to Santa Rosa, along with several other community leaders. The original idea was to find a way to celebrate the diversity of the county from the farmland and historic areas in the north to the beaches and attractions in the south with the goal of also building the shoulder season.

“Beaches to Woodlands has grown way beyond anything I ever dreamed of,” Goodin said. “I look at the list of events each year and am amazed. Santa Rosa County is not homogenized and the tourists learn a lot and locals are amazed at what we have to offer.”

Small farms diversifying

The impact and success of agritourism in north Santa Rosa County is evidenced by the investment local farmers are putting into non-production upgrades.

{{business_name}}Crowds at the Jay Peanut Festival. Photo credit: Beaches to Woodlands

Crowds at the Jay Peanut Festival. Photo credit: Beaches to Woodlands

This year, Holland Farms built Heaven's Trail Barn, a 5,000 square-foot rustic wood barn available for weddings and events. Sweet Season Farms has built a new barn in which to host birthday parties, has built additional seating around the farm and installed a farm-wide sound system. Coldwater Gardens is building a set of luxury 500-square-foot cottages to go along with the camping the farm already offers those wishing to vacation at that five acre boutique farm.

“Diversification has always been one of the key ingredients to success for small and family farms,” Matthews said. “Farming is such a volatile business. Agritourism has allowed us to grow into a market where we can better control our inputs and price or services where we can maintain a viable business.

“The best part of adding agritourism to our operation is that we can do this on small acreage and/or a small portion of our farm and still operate a true working farm. It allows us to keep doing what we love and create additional revenue sources when we need it the most. It’s still farming but we are able to reduce some of the traditional risks we deal with in just growing crops to sell on the open market.”

Holland Farms joined the Beaches to Woodlands Tour 11 years ago, offering little more than boiled peanuts. Now, Holland Farms has grown to include a maze, a pumpkin patch, a hayride and more.

“Agritourism has changed our farm greatly,” said B.J. Holland, who manages the family farm. “The amount of people wanting to visit our farm every year has helped us survive years when row crop farming would have put us out of business. It also allows our farm to stay productive without having to expand our farming acreage.”

That's exactly how agritourism typically works, Holdnak said.

"Most operations use their tourism component to supplement their operations rather than to carry it," he said. "Some folk do it as a commitment to passing on their culture to younger generations."

While the Beaches to Woodlands Tour encompasses dozens of events from beach activities to historic lectures to concerts, Matthews said the tour has been essential in the success of the agritourism events in the rural north part of the county.

“The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Emerald Coast is not all the productive farmland, forests and quaint communities we have scattered throughout the area.  People think of our wonderful beaches, schools and quality of life,” he said. “(The tour) keeps people thinking of Santa Rosa County for a bit of time even after our peak beach season has past.”