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By: Leah Schwarting, The Villages Daily Sun | Feb 28, 2024

Agritourism Growing Strong Around Sumter

Agritourism is now a multi-million dollar force in Sumter County.

The latest numbers from the United States Census of Agriculture, which is taken every five years, showed income from agritourism and recreational services went up across Florida and nationwide. In Sumter County, the number jumped from $130,000 in 2017 to about $2.4 million in 2022. The number represents agritourism’s popularity among a public eager for agricultural experiences.

Agritourism, a fairly modern take on an age-old practice, is now a massive presence on America’s farms. Agritourism and recreational services were already a $949.3 million industry in the United States in 2017, the last time the census was taken, but, over the next five years, the industry’s worth grew by about 33%. By 2022, it was worth about $1.3 billion.

Sumter’s growth is part of that, and it goes beyond a mere rise in venues. The number of Sumter farms with activities for people to reconnect with agriculture only increased by about 46% from 2017 to 2022, which isn’t even close to the pace set by income.

The answer may lie in 2020, and the pandemic. Back then, people wanted alternative experiences where they were away from enclosed environments but still out of their homes, said Suzanne Gilbert, director of fun at Brown and Brown Farms in Oxford.

“I think agritourism really, really spoke to this and opened peoples’ eyes,” she said. “And I think the agritourism industry as well woke up during this period, because at Brown and Brown Farms and the Country Store, we didn’t really do anything like this.”

In 2020, Brown and Brown, like many businesses, were hurting. In November, they held a festival on their farm with food trucks and music. They didn’t expect many people, Gilbert said, but they were absolutely flooded.

“It was a great problem to have, but it was just so overwhelmingly busy,” she said. “It was crazy.”
Nowadays, the farm hosts monthly flea markets. In the fall, they set up a corn maze. People can pick their own strawberries there, and Brown and Brown’s first strawberry festival just wrapped up.

“We’ve discovered a whole huge new world now with outdoor events,” Gilbert said. “We took inspiration from farms all over the U.S. and we’ve been to different states to put our own research in and see what was so successful for these farms.”

Mary Beth Locke, owner of Back Road Berries in Oxford, saw a similar bump during the pandemic. Her farm, which opened for U-pick in 2010, offers strawberries, blueberries and blackberries when in season.
“We didn’t have to shut down, but we did limit the number of people that were out here at one time,” she said. “It was something they were able to do, because everybody was so limited at what they could do during the pandemic.”

To Locke, agritourism’s attraction comes, at least in part, from nostalgia.

“It’s nice to come out and pick them yourself,” she said. “You get fresher berries and they just enjoy being outdoors, and a lot of them, it just brings back memories from when they were a kid.”
But it’s not just seniors. Seniors bring their grandchildren, and Locke and Gilbert also see families.
“We check a lot of boxes for a lot of different people, so it’s kind of easy to come out and bring your friends and family because there’s something there to do for everyone,” Gilbert said.
Of course, the census is just a snapshot of a single year. The agritourism industry is continuing to grow, even locally.

The Villages Grown recently joined the ranks of Sumter agritourism hot spots when it began its farm tours. However, Drew Craven, Villages Grown executive director, jokes the idea for the tours started before he joined in 2022.

When Craven was interviewing for the job he traveled around the community in a golf cart and spoke with Villagers. Many of them asked if they could see inside the farm. The Villages Grown tested the idea and, now, it offers tours twice a week.

“We wanted to deliver an experience,” Craven said.

Some people come in thinking a farm is a farm, he said, and they get blown away. The Villages Grown uses modern growing methods, including hydroponic systems, rather than soil like traditional farms.
When Craven picks up a head of lettuce, instead of bringing up clumps of dirt, Villagers can see the plant’s long, clean white roots.

“It’s like something form another world,” he said. “It’s so fundamentally different from what you expect.”
Craven, like Gilbert, believes the pandemic caused a shift in people’s behavior. People are taking more trips and they started to give experiences as gifts.

This is something different, Craven said, and there is an overwhelming curiosity as to where our food comes from. Being able to visit farms and connect with a practice that’s existed since the dawn of time, that’s unique and fun to do.

Specialty Editor Leah Schwarting can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or