By Herb Hiller
Photos by Brian Miller
What a concept!” enthused Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, when he spoke last February at a packed St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce-sponsored breakfast at Blue Sky Farms.
“To see this county come together with an agritourism corridor is very exciting. For the farmers that are interested in it, it creates a whole new revenue stream potential. For society, it creates the opportunity to bring your kids and grandkids out here to see how all of this happens and have some good, old-fashioned, family fun.”
What excited Putnam is the growing awareness of the cabbage patch west of I-95, not just as speedway blur, but as a beckoning landscape already long in place when Timucuans, in 1565, began farm-to-table feeding of Menendez and his St. Augustine minions.
There’s already enough to see, do and planned, that will turn the corridor into a destination. Florida Agritourism Association Executive Director Lena Juarez says the corridor will become an agritourism first.
“So far, our association members are mostly individual farms. Some are clustered, but an entire tri-county corridor adds a ‘Wow!’ factor that’s bound to induce more,” says Juarez.
And maybe happening just in time, as the St. Johns/Flagler/Putnam farm region shifts in a metamorphic way. Global markets threaten the region’s multi-generational family farms. Rooftops loom while bankrupt-threatened Hastings faces the loss of its town charter and takeover by a tax-strapped county administration.
Says Jim Alvarez, who runs Jim’s Place in Elkton, “Between 206 and 207, we may be one of the last areas to be developed, but there’s a ton of residents waiting to move in.”
Everyone already knows places that welcome visitors to the region, like County Line Produce and Sykes and Cooper Farms, with its corn maze that opens October 7th to the 29th. But that’s just along SR 207.
Within an hour, you can drive north to Orangedale, south on either side of the St. Johns River through Putnam County to Crescent City, or visit small farms in nearby Flagler County for fresh goat yogurt and squash pies, butterfly bushes and medicinal herbs. A sprawling ranch hosts hunt-camp banquets and horse-drawn hay rides. Country stores, historic churches and one-of-a-kind museums await, while kayak launches and waterside restaurants open (even if none yet directly on farms). Two rural ferries cross the river, where skydiving eagles harass osprey for their catch of the day, and a new tour boat operates from the River Center in Palatka.
The home for corridor advocates is the DeLand-based St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance. It’s the “friends” nonprofit for its namesake trail — affectionately SJR2C — that the Florida Department of Transportation has committed to build to completion. That’s 260 miles through St. Johns, Flagler, Putnam, Volusia and Brevard counties. The trail is already more than one third of the way paved paved and off-road. Expectations are for the 22- mile section between Vermont Heights and Palatka to open by next fall.
The Alliance is all about fitness and safety, says president Maggie Ardito. “But we also want the trail to generate business opportunities of a locally resourceful kind. We see that the Ag- Tourism Corridor can benefit family farms and down-home tourism alike. We’re happy that many others have joined us.”
Backing has so far come from all three corridor counties, from the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, the three county Extension Agencies, and grower organizations. Tourism promoters hail the corridor as 180 degrees different from, but entirely compatible with, landmark St. Augustine.
“Visitors are always looking for new ways to experience St. Augustine in addition to our historical sites, beaches and romantic getaways,” says Richard Goldman, President and CEO of the St. Johns County Visitors and Convention Bureau. “We’ve been waiting for this.”
North Florida Land Trust Land Protection Director, Marc Hudson, works with the 2013 Rural and Family Lands Protection Act to acquire land-preserving easements on family farms. He calls agritourism “unrestricted farm revenue” that’s separate from markets that farmers can’t control. The risks are altogether different.
“You can wind up with nothing for your crop but live off a successful corn maze and tours,” says Hudson. “The corridor makes sense.”
What’s already in place and coming up next will be easy to find come winter when the VCB publishes an online inventory of itineraries for do-it-yourself and guided touring.
Opportunities are popping. Consider what’s up with Trish Davis.
After Davis downsized from a 97- acre horse ranch, she found a more manageable spread on Old SR 207. That’s a remnant bend between Spuds and Armstrong that thousands a day speed past on the four-lane highway but rarely take time to slow down for. Board fences line the canopied old road that has become cracked and narrowed from encroaching bush. Only a tree break separates Davis’s place from the SJR2C Loop alongside.
When she finishes renovating two houses and a barn later this year – there’s already a swimming pool – Davis will open as the Victoria Farm Airbnb.
“I’m right down the road from St. Augustine,” she says, “and I’ll be putting up bicyclists like people did way back when. Except now we call it Airbnb and they’re coming on rail-trails. Just like in the historic district, everything old is new again.”
Some of the things you can now find outside of the “typical” St. Augustine experience:
- Maggie’s Herb Farm has operated 35 years pesticide free on two acres in Picolata where herbalist Dora Baker found it for sale. As she says, “I knew I had to keep the old place going. It was in danger of not being here.” Today, outside her greenhouses, and fairytale shop, you can photograph hundreds of butterflies hosting on their genetically compatible plants: passion vine for zebra longwings, and milkweed for monarchs. Walk the neatly marked rows and you’ll find merengue plants packed with protein. “You can actually live off this plant,” says Baker. ”It’s got more iron than spinach, more potassium than milk. It’s a super food. We have a lot of cool stuff here.”
- Jean-Sebastien Gros runs the Rype & Readi Downtown Farm Market in the popular Riberia Street district that’s home to the Ice Plant Bar and Saint Augustine Distillery. November 4, Sebastien (as everyone knows him) will launch a series of laidback local Saturday brunches in Elkton. He’s talking about pancakes with fresh fruit, aquaponic shrimp, datil sausage and local eggs, freshest greens, Mimosas, and music.
- Andalusia Cattle Company’s Jenny Cowart knows that as a rancher you always need something going on the side “because ranching’s tough. It’s the same as production farming. You have good years, you have bad years.” Now that her five grandkids have been coming out, Cowart has opened her 1,000 acres to “all the folks who have never touched a horse, never seen chickens. We put ‘em on hay rides, let them pump water. We’ll feed ‘em s’mores or a ranch-farmed banquet.” Some stay the night in the fixed-up old “cracker house.”
- Head on out West King Street, past local favorites Present Moments Café and Vic’s Crab Shack, and you’re on CR 214. David Doan presides at the CR 13A crossroads in the paraphernalia-filled Molasses Junction Country Store. Cucumber pickers flood in at lunchtime for gizzards, wings and goulash. The store has been there some 65 years. “I kept it,” says Doan, when he added on an entertainment shed that features monthly karaoke. “I didn’t want to give it up.” July 4th each year Doan gets both barbecue cookers going, and shuts down County Road 214 for fireworks. Molasses Junction becomes the Magic Kingdom.
- In Federal Point, Cyndy and Mike Burton have restored and opened an estate house with a wedding barn. The Burtons’ four-bedroom Secret Cove VRBO sits beside the river, a posh memory of a land grant community from 1813, when the way to St. Augustine was by horse trail, and to Jacksonville by riverboat.
- Early in the new year, Trish Davis will start a series of Sunday afternoon barn jams. Bring a picnic basket, cooler, a blanket, and chill to bluegrass music under the oaks. Now, as the season shifts, everybody wants to come out to the country. In these times, coming out may mean more than ever to those who keep “country” rural.
Want to know more about the 260- mile, long distance cycling trail that has inspired the tri-county agritourism corridor? Log onto the SJR2C Website, and show up at the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Summit and Trail Celebration, Oct. 26-28 in DeLand. Join the advocates or just come for the family fun. Check the website for updates, or the Facebook page here.