Far from the splashing waves and beach sand, South Dade is a different kind of paradise.
Here, uppity cocktails turn into fresh-fruit smoothies. Flip-flops are tossed for sneakers, and no one is picking up seashells — surrounded by fields, it’s all about tropical plants and local produce.
Thousands of visitors flock to South Dade for this experience every year, and for those who host them, it’s all about redefining what it means to vacation in Miami through the area’s diverse agriculture.
“Miami is typically associated with the beach, the nightlife, the clubs, but Miami has many things to offer,” said Rolando Aedo, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You can go from this mature, cosmopolitan city, and then 30 minutes away you can find these quaint, peaceful farms.”
Quaint perfectly describes “ Robert is Here,” a fruit stand on the western part of South Dade. Peaceful, not so much.
The outdoor hub of tropical fruit and rural quip was founded by Robert Moehling, 62, who grew up in Redland and over five decades turned a few crates, some cucumbers and a sign into a bustling market that hails people from all over.
It could even be considered an international attraction. Moehling goes around the establishment polling customers on where they come from. It doesn’t take him long to get what he wants to hear: Japan, France, Singapore.
For international and domestic visitors alike, Robert is Here is arguably the gateway to agricultural South Dade. At the stand, customers can see, touch and taste an impressive array of tropical fruits that they are often seeing for the first time.
Ashley D’Cruz, 62, came to Miami from Bangalore, India, with five other family members. Many of the fruits at the stand were new; D’Cruz had never tried passion fruit.
“I hear about it and said, ‘We must go and have it where they grow it right,’ ” he said.
Ica Geerman, 57, lives in Nieuwegein, Netherlands, where much of the produce at Robert’s is unheard of.
“You don’t see all this tropical fruit: Mango, guanabana, avocado, tamarind …” Geerman said. “We thought we were just going to have a shake, but I bought a shake, a coconut and a bunch of fruit.”
Another set of South Dade’s visitors are the experts — horticulturalists for the most part, who study plants and crop production.
“If you know anything about fruit, you can get excited about it,” said Jerry Frye, a horticulturalist for the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead. The park is a collection of thousands of trees that bear a collection of commonplace and unique fruits and spices.
Now over 60 years old, the park has expanded to about 40 acres. When it was first created, it was set up “so that other farmers could come and see how different crops are growing.”
“It’s a place where you can see the plantings that you’d have to travel to Central America, to Africa, to Asia to see,” Frye said. “You get people from all over the world who love this resource, that we have all of this different stuff here.”
Amplifying this aspect of agritourism will be one of the roles of the new South Miami-Dade Tropical Agricultural Visitor Center at 18710 SW 288th St. in Homestead, which had its ribbon cutting ceremony last month.
The center is a partnership between the Greater Miami Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and the Miami-Dade County Cooperative Extension.
The building that houses the center has long served to conduct agricultural research and train local growers on best practices, pesticide use and nutrition. Visitors will have access to pamphlets with information on touring the area and access to agriculture experts.
Joe Schaefer, the UF-IFAS district extension director, who oversees this operation among others, says international visitors have long been interested in hearing from experts at the institute and about lessons learned from South Dade growers. The visitor’s center will formalize these visits, and he hopes, attract more people interested in learning about tropical horticulture.
“We have people from all around the world that come there,” Schaefer said. “We have people from Asia … the Caribbean. We have people from all of the states. We grow some of their crops and they want to learn how they can be more successful.”
AGRITOURISM ADDS UP
Economically, agritourism makes sense.
“As time went on, the farming part didn’t make as much money as we wanted it to make. And the future didn’t look so bright,” Schnebly said. “The thought was, why don’t we do something to bring people?”
And they came. Today the establishment welcomes thousands of visitors every year and is repeatedly ranked as a top tourist destination. Retail sales only make up a quarter of his total revenue, and he says doesn’t employ sales people.
What started as a farm turned into a destination winery, expanded to add a brewery and, Schnebly hopes, will soon also incorporate a restaurant. Today, guests can get tours of the farm and facility, and taste rare wines (the avocado and lychee wines are local favorites.)
“Making wine out of fruit is ridiculously more difficult than making wine out of grapes,” Schnebly said, but he adds that watching people enjoy a glass right there compensates.
“It isn’t just to make the wine, but to have people enjoy the grounds,” he said. “It’s the real fun part of what we do. We have a connection with the customer that could last a lifetime.”
THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE
To the right, fields. To the left, fields.
The thin roads that stretch unobstructed for miles and the “watch out for tractors” signs don’t spell Magic City. Save the heat, driving around South Dade feels like you’ve left Miami altogether.
Tucked between Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park, the distance to South Dade is one of the issues facing the area. Tourists generally fly to Miami International Airport and stay in hotels closer to the hustle and bustle of the beach and downtown.
Aedo said building more lodging in South Dade, and adding new public transportation options.
“We’re finally growing up as a world class city, and I think that’s going to be critical,” he said.
But today, the spotty public transportation in Miami coupled with the metro area’s signature expansiveness mean many tourists rent cars. One of the tasks for the county’s southern edge is to get them to drive 30 to 40 miles out.
One bootstrap effort is the Redland Trail, a pamphlet with a map that guides tourists in and around South Dade’s tourist destinations.
“We thought it would be helpful, and it has really worked out. It’s given people an awareness of what’s here … We all have different things to offer,” said Robert Fuchs, president of RF Orchids, one of the stops on the trail.
RF Orchids is one of the oldest orchid nurseries in South Florida and showcases exotic orchids and unique hybrids.
The entrance is inviting: gates with cast-iron orchids, a small bridge that goes over a fountain leading you to the front door. The orchids aren’t all in the back. As soon as you step in, they’re in your face.
“We want to share with people what we do,” Fuchs said. “When they walk away, they say they can’t believe this is here.”
Robert is Here, Schnebly’s Winery and Brewery and the Fruit and Spice Park are also part of the guide. Also recommended are the strawberry farms, which will reopen this fall for visitors to pick ripe strawberries.
Schnebly says that driving out is a big part of creating the unique agricultural experience.
“The winery wouldn’t be appropriate next to a Walmart, a highway,” he said. “The country is not in suburbia. It’s farther than that. It’s a lot of land, less people.”
Audun Skalleberg, 22, is visiting Florida from Sweden. After landing in Tampa and driving to Miami, he realized, “You can’t park an RV on Miami Beach.”