Bay Area family turns barn into wedding destination

- At the Welch Farm in Plant City, it's a busy time for blueberries and cows.

"One of our cows is getting ready to have her first calf," said Michelle Welch, who farms there with her husband, Blake.

It's not the cows or horses that are unusual here. It's the barn.

It's decked out in chandeliers and starry lights. They've turned it into a showplace.

"We do a lot of re purposing," said Michelle. "We use Mason jars and and things you would find on a farm, like burlap and we make hay bale couches."

They call it Wishing Well Barn. It's now the perfect place to have a wedding.

In fact, several hundred couples have been married while surrounded by the farm, like Jill and Garrett Lombardi.

"We couldn't ask for a more beautiful wedding," recalled Jill. "This whole nature and the farm and everything is just like home to me."

A Barn is Born

When a wedding is held at Wishing Well Barn, the wedding party and guests have the run of the place, and they get a mini course in farming, too.

"I think people have more of an appreciation of their food when they know where it comes from," explained Michelle.

The Wishing Well Barn came from necessity. It's the very same barn shown in an old photo from 1962, where Blake Welch's dad is seen sitting on a tractor.

A few years ago, he had a stroke and needed to be cared for at home, but, at the time, Blake's job required extensive travel. They were in a pinch.

"We really needed somebody to take care of Papa, someone strong enough to pick him up," said Michelle. "We needed to find a way to keep Blake home."

That's when Michelle said, "We're going to fix up the barn!"  Blake said it was a crazy idea, but they went with it.

It's Agritourism 

Their oldest son held his wedding reception at the barn.

"The reaction was just amazing," recalled Michelle. "Friends started asking if they could have their weddings here." 

That's when the barn became a business, but they ran into government red tape getting permits.

"It was a battle," Michelle said. "At times, we felt like giving up."

As it turned out, she had to go all the way to Tallahassee to get the laws changed to classify the barn as "agritourism", a new trend that combines tourism with agriculture.

It encourages people to visit participating farms and ranches to learn about farming and the farm culture. It also pays off for farmers, who've been hard-pressed to hold onto their land. 

"Agritourism allows farm families to make their land more profitable. That will help us maintain the farm land that we have," said Michelle.

With the help of barn weddings, Blake hopes to expand their farm.

"Behind us is 60 acres that we may be able to buy one day, and keep our land," he says.

Coming Home

Blake and Michelle have five sons, two of them soon to return from the military. They want to join their parents farming the land. Michelle also expects many more couples to tie the knot in their barn.

"We have them come back and have baby showers, family reunions. You know, we really are extending our family by having these events," smiled Michelle.

The family has big plans for the farm that became an attraction when they decided to fix up the old barn.

To learn more about Wishing Well Barn and see photographs from weddings, visit http://www.wishingwellbarn.com/. To discover more Florida farms and ranches open to visitors, go to   http://visitfloridafarms.com/.

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