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Eat Near: Dakin Dairy celebrates five years of agritourism

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Dakin Dairy Farms / COURTESY KAREN DAKIN

Dakin Dairy Farms / COURTESY KAREN DAKIN

Karen Dakin wanders the aisles of the small gift shop that sits right at the entrance to her family's sprawling Myakka City dairy farm, pulling down jars of candied jalapeños, pointing out bottles of Peace River honey and telling stories about all the vendors that will be on hand at next Saturday's Farm Festival. The event is being held as a way to celebrate the farm's fifth year as an agritourism destination; Dakin is, in fact, the only Florida dairy farm open to the public. We pause at a food counter, the face of the kitchen Dakin installed last year to feed the masses coming to visit.

Dakin was never intended to be a hot spot for tourists, Karen says, but now that it is, she's embracing it. "They were coming to visit anyhow," Karen says, explaining the new kitchen, "so it was nice to have something more than a hot dog."

Buzz has been building about the Suncoast becoming a hub for agritourism, and Karen can testify to a surge in interest from outsiders and residents. Buses regularly haul schoolkids and seniors' groups out to the farm, she says. But getting the industry organized presents challenges. Dakin teamed up with other regional farmers to create Gulf Coast AgVentures as a way to jointly promote their businesses, but Karen says none of the members have the time needed to really help the cooperative take off. It's a full-time job.

But that hasn't stopped Dakin from stepping up its individual agritourism game, and next Saturday's Farm Festival is a kickoff of sorts to the farm's season of events. The enormous party features constant dairy tours, a mac-and-cheese contest (Karen says she still needs more participants, so step it up chefs), pig races, pony rides, a 5K, hayrides, live music from Kim Betts and Gamble Creek Band and tons of local vendors and demos, all set up in a scenic little pasture the farm has set aside for visitors.

"My whole point, my whole passion, is: Get outside," says Karen. Swing on a tire swing, crack open a picnic basket. "Get outside and have some fun."

That's a message that resonates all season long. Once the Farm Festival is over, Dakin will resume its Old-Fashioned Country Picnics, which go down at specific times Wednesday through Saturday all the way till May.

Karen runs me through a speedier version of the farm's typical dairy tour, showing me Dakin's 1,600 milking cows, who rest in giant open-air barns with dozens of fans batting around cool air. From there the cows mosey to the milking stations, where they are kept in place by harnesses like those that lower over you on a roller coaster. Technicians stride along a walkway dug in below where the cows are, cleaning udders and attaching teat cups.

From there, the milk is rapidly chilled down to 36 degrees and then separated to make skim, 2 percent, whole, cream, etc. Karen says she dreams about one day converting one empty space into a cheese aging area. While agritourism has been a hit these past few years, the commercial milk industry's fluctuating prices present challenges, Karen says. But Dakin is in every Whole Foods in Florida, and even hundreds of high-end restaurants.

Building an agritourism community has proven difficult, but Karen points to new ventures like the Florida Agritourism Association, formed just this April in Tallahassee, as evidence the industry is headed in the right direction: "What an exciting time."

Farm Festival: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., Oct. 5. Dakin Dairy Farms, 30771 Betts Road, Myakka City. $15.

This is the 32nd entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at eatnearsrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

Last modified: September 30, 2013
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