Positive Press on the Agritourism corridor

 Article in today's St Augustine Record by STUART KORFHAGE

Some pushing concept of agritourism in farming areas around SR 207

When Herb Hiller looks at the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop biking trail, he sees potential that goes well beyond the opportunity for a few cyclists to pedal around Northeast Florida.

Hiller, president of the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance, envisions several stops along the route becoming small tourist destinations in their own right.

And the first area on his agenda is the State Road 207 corridor between southern St. Johns County and Palatka. The idea, shared by others, is to promote — or perhaps even nudge — the area as a possible tourist destination.

The idea is referred to as agritourism. Hiller said it’s perfect for the area because there are several working farms along the corridor and because more visitors are going to be passing through with the planned completion of the bike loop.

“It was just an asset waiting for development; the question became how to make it happen,” Hiller said. “In these times what’s really important, the message you would get from conservatives and liberals alike is make use of an existing asset that is underutilized. I’m driven by that as is the alliance.”

Those in the tourism industry are also interested in the concept. Richard Goldman, CEO and president of the county visitors and convention bureau, said convincing people to visit downtown St. Augustine or the beaches — especially on weekends — isn’t that difficult.

But the idea of an agritourism corridor is pleasing because it takes visitors out of the most crowded areas of the county and also gives them a reason to extend a trip or come back more often.

Agritourism corridor on SJR2C“What we’re trying to do is look around for other things, and the agritourism fits into — and the trail system combined — the research that says folks are looking for more authentic experiences,” Goldman said. “And it fits into the food sourcing that is becoming more and more important in our culture.”

Declan Reiley, vice president of economic development for the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, said he’s seen some excitement for the concept of agritourism.

He said there are several reasons for it, including that fact that the improving economy has entrepreneurs more willing to take risks right now. And he also shares Goldman’s enthusiasm for the idea of establishing another destination within the county that will draw visitors.

“This development of this corridor initiative is a much sought-after relief valve for the pressures that are being put on America’s oldest city,” Reiley said. “This is a new element or a new channel for something different for those repeat customers that St. Augustine has been enjoying.”

If the S.R. 207 corridor becomes a place that attracts foodies or people who just have an interest in locally grown produce, Reiley said it could be a great draw for visitors as close as Jacksonville who are looking for a non-urban experience.

The area now is decidedly non-urban but also not much of a destination. How, or even whether, to change that is a complicated issue.

For starters, farmers are generally farmers and not tour operators. While some farms currently host special events, field trips or produce shops, others simply focus on the task of growing food.

Local farmer Bucky Sykes, co-owner of Sykes and Cooper Farms, said his farm is happy to do its corn maze for about six weeks every fall. But that’s not necessarily something he wants to expand.

The farm grows vegetables all year, so trying to be a tourist site, too, might be somewhat exhausting.

“I have mixed feelings,” he said. “We run a business just like everybody else. Our business is pretty tough. As far as having time to do any of that (tourist) kind of stuff, I don’t know.”

Sykes isn’t ruling out a change in the future, but he said he just isn’t sure how it would work.

That’s the issue for others in the agriculture business, Goldman said.

“Part of the reason it’s a challenge is farmers are typically not in that hospitality business,” he said. “So part of this effort is trying to acclimate those folks with the things that can be done and accomplished and sharing their experience and the importance of raising food with folks who find that interesting and would travel to do it.”

One farmer who’s ready for the agritourism movement is Rype and Readi Farm Market co-owner Jean-Sebastien Gros.

He said Americans’ interest in locally grown food is very high right now as they are looking for healthier and tastier choices.

Rype and Readi has hosted dinners and other events in Elkton, and Gros said a concerted marketing effort could get more visitors interested in farming-related activities.

“It’s absolutely about knowing what’s available,” he said. “The county has some great assets that are so underutilized.

“I think this (corridor idea) is very worthwhile. What this county has to offer, you just don’t have this all over the state. I think there’s a lot more interest and desire for people that are traveling to be able to kind of explore their whole food chain.”