With the availability of affordable land, mild winters, and proximity to populous areas, small farms in Central Florida are popping up everywhere you look, from vineyards to market gardens to rolling horse pastures. If you’ve been thinking of creating your own little paradise in the heart of Florida, now is a great time to do it, with mortgage rates still at historic lows and a steady stream of new properties for sale.
What is a Hobby Farm?
While farming has always been a strong industry in the region, the emergence of hobby farms–small farms that are run for side-income, supplemental retirement income, or simply for pleasure–has changed the agricultural landscape drastically in the past 30 years. The growing food movement has brought attention to and demand for healthy, locally produced food and government incentives have ensured continued growth. Produce farms aren’t the only ones on the upswing, though. Horse boarding has seen continual growth over the last few years, and horse farms are increasingly common in Central Florida. According to Stable Management, “running a horse farm/stable or teaching riding lessons seems to be continuing on an upward trend…” with no signs of slowing down.. Also consider that many hobby farms use their land for multiple purposes, often reflecting the more traditional vision we have of a picturesque family farm: Gardens of fresh vegetables, a few animals in the pastures, and a little orchard in the side yard. Your hobby farm can take on whatever form you want.
Something important to note is that a hobby farm is not supposed to be a full-time business and doesn’t qualify for the same tax benefits as a small farm that is run as a profitable business. As Zacks.com clarifies, “small farmers can spread out the declaration of profits to avoid paying higher taxes following a year of profit taking,” while IRS-designated hobby farms can’t take advantage of this tax break. So, before you begin your plans, consider whether you want farming to be something you do on the side, or your full-time business. Starting small with a “hobby farm” also allows you to try out the farm life on a manageable scale with less risk–and who knows, it could always grow into something much bigger!
What Grows Best in Central Florida?
When considering what you would like to do with your little farm, you’ll want to always keep in mind what works best (and thrives!) in our specific region. Much of the research and general information for growing crops and raising livestock that you’ll find online is based on temperate climates–places with long, cold, dormant periods and shorter, milder growing seasons. While this does mean you have to perform due diligence to be sure that your choices will be viable in Central Florida, our humid subtropical climate also opens doors for many crops that are not designed for the shorter, cooler growing seasons of the North. When growing crops, it’s easy to check the USDA Hardiness Zone before purchasing seeds, transplants, and seedlings of each individual crop (in Ocala, we’re zone 9a!), but keep in mind that just because something can be grown or raised in our region, doesn’t mean you won’t have to take special precautions, especially in hot conditions, to ensure its success. Below you’ll find a number of options that have proven successful locally, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list!
Market Gardens: Vegetables
There are lots of names for a small farm that grows annual produce: market garden, produce farm, kitchen garden, vegetable farm. Whatever you call it, after decades of decline since the Victory Gardens of World War I and II, small scale vegetable production–whether on your own homestead, garden plot, or small farm–has experienced a renaissance. In fact, over a third of American households now grow their own food, according to a report by the National Gardening Association. Depending on your needs and whether you plan on only feeding yourself or selling your produce, plots can range in size from a small 4’x4’ vegetable bed to several acres, though the larger sizes may require a full-time commitment. And the nice thing about growing vegetables is that they can fit into any sized hobby farm.
Which Crops are Suitable for Central Florida?
According to the University of Florida, tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, snap beans, and potatoes are all vegetable crops that have proven especially successful to grow in Central Florida. When you select what you want to grow, pick crops that not only tolerate heat and humidity, but thrive in it. If you yourself are a transplant from the north, note that your growing seasons in Central Florida will change significantly: crops that you may have traditionally grown in the summer will need to be grown as spring or fall crops. Shifting the growing season a few months can allow you to grow crops like lettuce and other greens that will bolt and turn bitter in hot weather. Check out this handy Florida Vegetable Planting Calendar from Urban Farmer to help plan your seeding schedule.
What You Need to Know
Because there are many local sources for fresh produce, be sure to do your research and find your own niche if you expect to sell produce. To begin, consider the needs of your target audience that aren’t totally fulfilled by local markets. For example:
- Can you distinguish yourself from other produce sellers at the local farmers’ market?
- Could your neighborhood benefit from a roadside stand?
- Are there any nearby restaurants that would be interested in a Farm-to-Table relationship?
Just because there are other small farms in the area, don’t underestimate your own potential value. As Karen King of Mt. Citra Farm in Citra points out, despite the food movement “There is [still] a lack of local farms.” Managing a vegetable farm of any size can be a complicated and labor-intensive endeavor, so before you get started, take the time to think about what you want out of your small farm and what you’re able to put into it. BeginningFarmers.org has a useful guide to starting a small farm, which includes many resources and is helpful for planning farms of all sizes.
Why It’s Suitable for Central Florida
When outsiders think of the crop that best represents Florida, citrus is always at the top of the list. However, citrus farming comes with some inherent risks here in Florida– citrus greening, a bacterial disease in citrus trees that cause curled and mottled leafs and undersized, misshapen, and bitter fruit. Instead, we recommend watermelon and its cousins: cantaloupe, honeydew, and casaba. Florida is a top producer of watermelon and our Central part of the state has an especially great climate for melon growing. Melons are also fairly easy to transport and sell.
Watermelon is a classic warm weather food, a staple of summer barbecues everywhere. It’s also more affordable and dependable than other niche crops. And because spring comes to Central Florida earlier than in other states, melon growers in Florida have a head start on the season.
What You Need to Know
Mid to late April, once the threat of frost has passed, is the best time to start your melon crop. Choose a full-sun area where the fruit, which grows on vines, will have space to expand. Each plant should be covered by a 6-10 inch mound of soil with mulch on top. Drip irrigation is the best way to water your watermelons and you’ll want to weed as little as possible. You don’t want your watermelons to get too much water, which will affect the taste, so aim to finish your harvesting by June before the rainy season begins.
Melon producers make money based on the weight of the fruit, so consider a variety of melon types, from traditional large watermelons to the smaller “personal melons” that are in style. If you decide to grow seedless varieties of watermelon, you’ll need to mix them with traditional seeded varieties for pollination to occur.
Why They’re Suitable for Central Florida
Although strawberries are technically citrus fruit, and many people think about places like Maine or New Jersey when they think of blueberries, the “berry farm” that grows a variety of little, delectable hand-picked fruit is the perfect side business for someone in Central Florida looking for a shorter, more distinct season of work. For instance, at Aunt Zelma’s Blueberries, the U-Pick season runs no more than two months (usually late March/early April to Mid-May). Likewise, strawberries and cane fruits (raspberries, blackberries, etc.) will also have shorter harvest seasons, and can be picked by customers, reducing the work you have to do. But perhaps the best thing about berries is that, like citrus, you don’t have to replant year after year. Strawberries and cane fruits only need to be replanted every few years and blueberry bushes can live for fifty years or more.
What You Need to Know
Blueberries are perhaps the lowest maintenance “berry,” as they do not need to be regularly replanted, once established. However, strawberries and cane fruits only last 2-5 years, and new patches (in distinct locations to avoid transference of disease), need to be planted annually or semi-annually to allow time to establish and bear fruit. Additionally, cane fruits need to be regularly pruned and trellised in order to allow sufficient air circulation as well as access to the fruit for picking. So, consider these factors when deciding what you want to grow and how much of it will be manageable based on your needs. Lastly, keep in mind that picking berries is very labor-intensive–which is why U-Pick farms are so popular. If you want to sell your fruit but don’t want strangers in your fields, be prepared for a lot of repetitive, sometimes low-to-the-ground work, or to hire someone to do it for you.
A major benefit to the berry farm is that it is one of the simplest ways to create a value-added product: a product made from a crop that fetches a premium price. Jellies, jams, and other spreads can be created year-round in your downtime with leftover frozen berries, and sold onsite, at markets, or to local establishments. Create an eye-catching label for the jars and they will serve as an effective advertisement for your farm every morning at your customer’s breakfast table.
A Note on Grapes
All the fruits discussed above are considered “false berries,” botanically speaking. But one true berry, the grape, is another perennial fruit to consider, especially for wine. Plant a whole vineyard and start your own small label, or just plant a few vines and make enough wine to give to Grape vines take three years to bear fruit, but can live over a hundred years, making a vineyard not only an idyllic place to stroll through, but also a relatively low-maintenance agriculture venture.
As with almost all perennial plants, grapes are traditionally grown with a lot of pesticides–and consumers are increasingly avoiding non-organic berries and other fruit because of this. However, organic grapes and wines can sell for 50% or more over non-organic varieties, allowing you to avoid exposure to these chemicals as well. Want to have a vineyard but don’t want to make the wine yourself? Consider developing a partnership with a local winery to supply them with special varieties or organic grapes instead.
What You Need to Know About Grapes and Soil
Many varieties of grapes that are difficult to grow in Florida thrive in Marion County due to our limestone-rich soil, which is also why horses thrive here. With grapes, limestone contains special nutrients to boost the healthiness and sweetness of the berry. It also retains moisture in dry weather and provides drainage in cooler weather. The only caveat with lime-heavy soil is that you need to fertilize more often.
Grape vines are particular about the soil they’re planted in. They won’t thrive in nutrient-rich soil or shallow clay and they need their soil to be well-drained. Central Florida’s climate, neither too hot nor too cold, and free of hurricanes, is also very hospitable to viticulture.
There are two primary types of grapes for making wine in Central Florida:
- Muscadine: These native Florida grapes are very popular statewide for their easy maintenance. They come in both red and white varieties.
- Florida hybrid bunch grape: A catch-all term for the hybrid of European and native U.S. grapes created for growing in Florida. For example, the Blanc du Bois hybrid grape is perfect for making white wine. Other examples of hybrid bunch grapes include Stover and Suwanee.
Why They’re Suitable for Central Florida
We’ve talked a lot about the crops you can grow, but the most popular type of hobby farm in Ocala has little to do with food. In fact, horse farms make up nearly 30% of all farms in Florida, with Ocala sometimes called the “Horse Capital of the World,” having more horses than any other county in the US. The reasons for this are many, but a combination of affordable land and pleasant riding conditions year-round have contributed to the continued growth. While many horse farms are full-time businesses, keeping a few horses on your farm for personal use, or boarding a handful of extra horses for side-income, can allow you to enjoy the ranch life.
What You Need to Know
While horses are one of the few mammals (like humans) who can tolerate heat by sweating through the skin, they can also be very sensitive to heat, and certain precautions need to be taken in extreme hot weather. Choose varieties of horses that are evolutionarily
Lastly, one thing to consider before pursuing horse boarding is the cost. Horse farms require a significant amount of infrastructure, including fencing and stables, and at least 1 acre of land per horse. Purchasing a pre-existing horse farm means that these costs will be clearer upfront and can be incorporated into your mortgage. But if you have a piece of land in mind that isn’t horse-ready, take some time to explore the costs before diving in. The Horse has an informative guide to building a horse farm from scratch, which includes not only the design and building of facilities, but also how to prepare for regular ongoing upkeep, like what to do with all that manure.
A Note on Raising Other Animals
If you’re interested in adding some animals to your hobby farm for food production, chickens and dairy goats are the most common choices and both do equally well in Central Florida. See Morning Chore’s “6 Best Farm Animals to Raise (and 1 Not to) When You’re Just Starting out” for some basic recommendations, and remember that almost all animals require care, every day throughout the day, when deciding whether or not adding animals into the mix is right for you.
Beekeeping and Cut Flowers
Looking for a fun and practical addition to your hobby farm? Beekeeping is a viable business in Central Florida due to our unusually warm climate and abundant food. And of course, bees are an essential part of the pollination process. Raising honeybees or even just adding pollinator-friendly flowers to your garden (see below) is a helpful way to combat the die-offs of bee colonies across the country. Here are the resources we recommend to help you get started on your apiary adventure:
Cut flowers (and herbs!) are a great addition to any vegetable garden, as they attract beneficial insects including pollinators, while some varieties
A Well-Rounded Homestead
Not all farms need to specialize in one thing. In fact, diversification can help ensure success, and, especially for a hobby farm, experimenting with different specialties can be rewarding. If you’re looking for a more traditional family farm, taking a trip back in time might give you the perfect model: The Whidden-Clark Homestead at the Florida Agriculture Museum of Pensacola offers a glimpse at the small farm life of Florida at the turn of the century. Active from 1880 to the mid-20th Century, the farm had vegetable gardens, typical farm animals including cows and chickens, and a citrus grove. Tour the property, including the chicken coop, citrus buildings, and dairy barn, and maybe you’ll find some inspiration!
Budgeting and Selecting a Property
Once you’ve established a vision of your farm, it’s important to create a budget which includes both how much it will cost you to purchase and set up your farm, as well as how much income you expect to draw from it, or how much it will cost each year if you don’t expect to turn a profit. These costs include the basics like your mortgage payment and any additional taxes or insurance, but also things like water, seed, tools and equipment, hired-out labor, packaging and marketing costs, and if you plan to sell goods at local markets, cost for space rental and displays.
Tools to Help You Budget
Below is a list of resources designed to help you determine your budget for both purchasing a farm, as well as running it year-to-year. It’s important to consider these things before you seek financing or research properties for sale.
- BeginningFarmers.org: Farm Business Planning
- Includes many resources for both developing a business plan and “enterprise budgeting”
- Farm Marketing Solutions: 2018 Farm Budget
- A real example of a small farm budget, with detailed expenses and sincere advice
- Investopia: Mortgages: How Much Can You Afford?
- A detailed guide to determining how much you can afford to borrow, as well as considerations lenders take into account when determining your qualifications
- BeginningFarmers.org: Farm Business Planning
Finding the Right Property
When it all comes down to it, the most important thing about starting a hobby farm is finding the perfect place to do it. At any time, you’ll find dozens of small farm properties with acreage in just about every budget. Penn State offers a useful Farmland Assessment Checklist to use as you start your search, but a basic place to begin is to consider these 5 important questions:
- What is my budget?
- Consider upfront purchase costs as well as ongoing income and expenses.
- What will I grow or raise?
- How much farm do I want to maintain?
- Consider the size of the farm and what work will need to be done to keep it up — both property maintenance and ongoing farm labor.
- Where do I want to live?
- Consider the location and its proximity to cities, family, and markets.
- How much time, energy, and money do I want to invest?
- Consider the current state of the property and how much work it will take to get to your vision.
- What is my budget?
Once you have a pretty good idea of your answers to these questions, it’s time to visit your local bank and start investigating available properties to find a match. A great place to start is our Farms Under 10 Acres page, which features an array of small farmsteads ideal for equestrian living or any sort of hobby farm. With so many to choose from, you are sure to find the right choice for you. At Showcase Properties, our experienced real estate agents are ready to help you find the hobby farm property of your dreams. Contact us today!