Explore the expanse of working land that lies just beyond city limits

When taking back roads across the state one will find themselves driving through small towns such as Elkton, Hastings and Spuds. From State Road 207 they don’t seem like much, just open fields dotted with the occasional farm or roadside boiled peanut stand, but take the time to stop and discover a vibrant history that comes with the land.

Hastings, in particular, is a town with a rich past of a flourishing community. But the vacant and crumbing buildings confirm it’s just that: history.

“Hastings is known as the ‘Potato Capital of Florida’ with 21,000 acres of potato farms, but they also produce cabbage, onions, eggplant and ornamental horticulture,” says Flagler College Enactus project leader Natalia Fernandez. She explains Hastings was established around the need for fresh produce at the tourist hotels being built in St. Augustine by Henry Flagler in the 19th century. “Flagler persuaded Thomas Horace Hastings, his cousin, to develop a farm. A small community evolved into a town, which was named for its founder in 1890.”

Despite the still existing farms, bad seasons tarnished crops, big buyers chose different regions and the little town lost its luster.

Working to bring it back is the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance and Flagler College Enactus students. The St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance supports, advocates and enhances the multi-use Florida SUN Trail. The 260-mile path, used by cyclers and pedestrians, stretches through small towns from St. Augustine to Titusville, Hastings being one of the newest additions. Flagler College Enactus saw the expansion of the trail to this area as a chance to promote agro-tourism. Together the groups hatched the idea of Agventure Farm Tours, its first outing being held Saturday, April 14. The guided tour showcased two farms (Rype & Readi and Blue Sky), the Saturiwa Conservation Area and downtown Hastings.

The next tour will take place May 12, with outings both in the morning and the evening—to showcase the sunset views from Saturiwa's dock. Tickets start at $10 and can be purchased here

“We realize the culture of farming is dying because of technological advances, so we wanted to come up with ways to get people out there,” says Fernandez. Between the farm-to-table movement and the growth of urban gardens, it seemed people would be interested in learning more about the land.

“You can grow basil and cilantro at home, but for the things you can’t grow there are resources nearby. You can go and see how it's done and know that it’s good quality,” says Fernandez. “It's about combining what we’re seeing on the tour and applying that to our own home lifestyle. We also hope that we're making a connection and creating a relationship between the consumers and the sellers.”

Beyond farming, the tour highlighted uncultivated land at Saturiwa Conservation Area, a privately owned 94 acres along the St. Johns River in Elkton. Named for a Timucua chief who once resided in the area, the property boasts a forest of longleaf pines. Prescribed burns aid the trees by keeping down invasive species.

“The conservation area is also a tree farm, so that’s how it ties in with agriculture,” says Fernandez. “They sell their pine trees every ten years, because they’re wanting to conserve and get the better yield. The industry likes to push five years, but being the conservationists they are, they wait.”

Amongst the pines is an abundance of native plants and wildlife. As one strolls the land they pass carnivorous pitcher plants and flourishing Cyprus trees while ospreys soar overhead. Heading toward the river, there’s a boardwalk that makes its way through lush wetlands and out onto the water, ending in a covered dock. There, if one is lucky, manatees and alligators can be spotted.

The tour proceeded to Blue Sky Farms, where owner Danny Johns went through the highs and lows of potato farming. Johns is a fourth generation farmer, his family known for their innovative techniques. In the 1930s his grandfather was the first in the area to switch from mules to tractors. Recently, Blue Sky switched from traditional irrigation to a method that conserves water and better serves crops. The new irri-drain systems, as they are called, are buried beneath the ground, supplying water directly to roots and only when it’s needed.

Blue Sky’s main crop is potatoes—everything from red to fingerling. The newest variety to be introduced to the fields is a purple sweet potato—bursting with both color and health benefits.

Stopping in Downtown Hastings, the tour highlighted the expansion of the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop and the Hastings Potato Growers Association building, which sits along the trail. The structure was recently renovated, an oddity in a town full of buildings with nothing left but their bones in the worst cases or run down finishings in the best. Most businesses have moved elsewhere, leaving just a handful of churches and some necessities like a barber shop and convenience store. The St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop Alliance hopes the trail will bring students and artists into the area, those with creative energy and open minds in the market for cheap rent.

Just outside Hastings proper sits a farmers market, County Line Produce, that has been selling area crops for more than 50 years. The stand came about when a couple of kids took the extra cabbage their family didn’t sell and offered it for a nickel a head on the side of the road, similar to a lemonade stand. The children grew tired and eventually packed up, but in the following days passersby would stop and honk their car horns shouting, “Where are the kids with the nickel cabbage?” The stand now runs from October to June each year, putting up its “Shut” sign in the hottest summer months, when sales are harder to come by and crops don’t produce as much. Stand favorites include potatoes, Brussels sprouts, ugly carrots and, of course, cabbage.

The morning finished off at Rype & Readi farm, known for its market in Downtown St. Augustine. The farm is home to a variety of animals such as donkeys, lambs and cows along with both hydroponic and typical farm gardens.