While the Beatles may extol the eternal virtues of strawberries in their legendary song, "Strawberry Fields Forever," those living in Florida know better.
Florida strawberries are available for a seemingly fleeting period of time each year. Then, like the rest of the country, Floridians are relegated to eating strawberries grown in California.
Actually, the Florida strawberry season is a little more than fleeting. In Florida, strawberries are hand planted in September and then hand harvested immediately after Thanksgiving through April.
During that five-month period, Floridians enjoy strawberries in just about every recipe imaginable -- shortcake, pie, jelly, jam, chocolate dipped, smoothies, shakes, spinach salads, cheesecake, sauce and even on pizza.
However, as Riverview residents Jerry and Becky Hoffman can attest, quite of few of these sweet, juicy fruits never make it to the kitchen. They are consumed right off the plant.
The Making of a Family Farm
The Hoffmans are the owners of Fern Hill Family Farms, a 16-acre u-pick strawberry and vegetable farm at 10070 Fern Hill Dr., off Gibsonton Drive in Riverview.
Residents of this area for 40 years (Jerry Hoffman is owner of Jerry Hoffman Construction in Valrico), the Hoffmans hail from Midwest farming families and say they've always dreamed of operating their own farm.
They began studying farming methods and were attracted to hydroponic farming because of its environmentally friendly nature.
Hydroponic farming is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water, without soil. The popularity of this farming method is growing because it doesn't require large tracts of land, the water can be reused, there is no fertilizer runoff and there are fewer pests and diseases because the plants are elevated. Plus the method yields more produce.
The elevated plants also make harvesting a lot easier, said Jerry Hoffman -- no more bending and kneeling to pick the fruit.
A Family Gathering Place
In addition to being environmentally friendly, the Hoffmans wanted their farm to be family friendly. Their vision was to create a place for families and friends to come together and share God's bounty.
With that in mind, they invited the public to help harvest their strawberries starting in January. Since then, the farm has seen a steady flow of weekend visitors intent on reaping their own bounty.
All u-pick customers are provided a basket, scissors to cut the strawberries off thus protecting the plants from tearing, and instructions on how to pick the fruit. Oh, and there's also plenty of hand sanitizer available so pickers don't inadvertently spread germs and diseases to the plants.
Currently, Fern Hill Family Farms is open only on weekends -- Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Farmer's Market Coming
However, the Hoffmans are in the process of building a 6,000-square-foot air-conditioned farmer's market called the Big Red Barn. Once the barn is completed in late February, the u-pick fields will be open six days a week and the farmer's market will be open seven days a week.
In addition to strawberries, the Big Red Barn will offer vegetables and fresh fruits grown by local farmers along with Cubans and other custom sandwiches, strawberry shakes, strawberry shortcake, strawberry smoothies, a full selection of deli meats and cheeses and premade salads. The Big Red Barn will feature a gift shop as well highlighting products from Mother Earth.
Longtime members of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, the Hoffmans are also intent on giving back to the community.
To that end, they will offer local nonprofit groups and churches a chance to participate in a rebate program for purchases made by their organizations' members.
At the end of each quarter, Fern Hill Family Farms will issue each participating organization a check representing 10 percent of the profit made from those sales.
"We're giving back to God what He has so abundantly given us," said Hoffman.
For more information, visit the Fern Hill Family Farms website.