Agritourism is one of the hottest new draws in Polk County and Florida, and for good reason. Families and businesses that make their living off the land are being creative in opening up their farms and ranches to the general public, attracting guests and adding to their bottom line at the same time.

The agribusiness side of family farming improved in 2013, when the state updated laws governing activities on ranches and farms. Among other things, the new law reduced the liability owners are responsible for if they post a sign at the entrance to their property that says, basically, risks exist during agritourism activities. They must include such language in contracts with customers as well. That eliminates potentially huge judgments against the farmer or rancher in the event of an accident. Of course, owners cannot be negligent and must take proper precautions.

Just what is agritourism?

According to Florida Statute 570.85, which was updated in 2016:  “ ‘Agritourism activity’ means any agricultural-related activity consistent with a bona fide farm, livestock operation or ranch, or in a working forest, which allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, to view or enjoy activities, including farming, ranching, historical, cultural, civic, ceremonial, training and exhibition, or harvest-your-own activities and attractions.”

In Polk County, such activities include farms where you pick your own fruit, learn about wine making, buy honey, ride horses, tour a ranch on a hayride or get married on a farm. It’s limited only by the imagination of the owners.

And the laws of the land.

Promoting agritourism

Visit Central Florida knows agritourism is important here.

“For us it’s very important as agriculture and citrus are a big part of what our county is, and when visitors come to an area — Polk County or anywhere — they want to experience the authentic parts, said Kris Keprios, marketing manager for Visit Central Florida. “Agriculture and citrus are part of our heritage.”

Polk County has long been the No. 1 citrus-producing county in the state. It also devotes thousands of acres to blueberry, tomato and tropical fish farms, along with cattle.

“We work with all of our blueberry U-picks and now we have this great growing scene of breweries that use local products and ingredients,” Keprios said. “We have a new brochure that promotes all of that — Taste of Central Florida — where you can go to pick an orange or to have a craft brew. It’s one of the ways we promote agriculture in our area.”

Those wanting to promote agritourism on their farms or ranches must pass a multitude of tests to adhere to the “bona fide” term. Those include how long they’ve used the land for agriculture, whether it was only used for agriculture, the purchase price and four more. If it’s determined to be bona fide, it can move forward with activities that are protected under the liability laws.

One farm’s story

About five years ago, Angela and Billy Slappey opened their farm, S bar S at 409 J A Fenton Road in North Lakeland, to the general public for weddings. Now, they host about 30 to 35 weddings a year on a portion of the 500 acres they own. The location is perfect, with an entryway for the bride, chairs and a lectern, all nestled under large trees that provide a fair amount of shade.

In addition to the wedding, “We take all of our brides and grooms and their families on a ride” around the farm, Angela Slappey said. “It’s a little more personal. We show them around and explain the cows, which ones are Brahma and Cracker” and others.

The Slappeys also provide a large barn for a romantic reception, carefully decorated with hanging lights, beautiful centerpieces and a dance floor, among others. They also offer a catering service, florals and wedding cakes.

Reviews on the S bar S Barn Weddings Facebook page are positive. In February, Amber Honiker wrote: “Where to start… Angela and her family are so amazing. Our wedding last weekend was beyond my dreams. My vision X 100. Our guests raved about the food and how beautiful everything was.”

S bar S also hosts 15 to 20 corporate events each year. In June, it provided a large

field for closest-to-the-pin golf and cornhole tournaments, a hayride (without the hay), and a lunch buffet on two Saturdays for employees of Hexion and their families.  

Other places offering agritourism in Polk County

Visit Central Florida knows it is not going to convince out-of-towners to come to Polk County simply for its agritourism offerings, but such activities will add options while tourists are here.

“If they visit Legoland, agritourism could really enhance their trip,” Keprios said. “They can have that authentic experience  — go to Ridge Island Groves and see how orange juice is made.”

Or any of another options available right here in Polk County.

Those include, but are not limited to:

Various U-pick-em locations that open seasonally when their offerings are ripe.

  • Kirkland Farms in Lakeland.
  • Farmers markets that open mostly on the weekends in many cities.
  • True Blue Winery in Davenport.
  • Shady Oaks Fruit Farm in Lakeland.
  • Wm. G. Roe & Sons packinghouse in Eloise.

For more locations, go to the Visit Central Florida website and search for agritourism.