By Michelle Colesanti
Since mid-winter, the local community has been enjoying U-pick hydroponic strawberries at Fern Hill Family Farms, which recently opened its 6,000 sq. ft. air-conditioned produce market.
Traditionally picking strawberries can be tiresome with all the bending. When Suzy Wiesenhart discovered Fern Hills Family Farm’s hydroponic U-pick strawberries, which only required cutting them with a small scissor while standing upright, she decided to give it a try. Wiesenhart said, “I have back problems, so not having to bend down is a definite plus for me. The strawberries are amazingly delicious and cannot compare to the ones in the stores. Just when you think you have enough, you see another gorgeous one to cut and it becomes a challenge to stop.”
It’s only the beginning. The Hydroponic Farm is owned and operated by Becky and Jerry Hoffman, who have spent over 40 years in Florida after being raised in the Midwest farming area. They plan to grow a variety of produce based on the growing seasons. Squash, zucchini, several varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, red and green cabbage, eggplant, peppers, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, fresh herbs, kale, Swiss chard, and more are currently growing. Blueberries will be planted in the fall.
In hydroponic farming, the space is utilized by the stacked towers. What is grown with the strawberries or other vegetables depends on the space that each plant requires. For example, the squash and zucchini, cabbage, onions, etc. are placed on the bottom because they require larger pots, while the lettuce may be grown alongside berries because they require less space to grow.
Significantly less water is used when growing hydroponically; approximately 15% of the water that is used for conventional ground plants growing. Family member Tiffany Hoffman said, “The plants are fed through a drip system, in which water and nutrients are fed to the plants through water four times a day for five minutes at a time. The system is so regulated, that by the time the water reaches the bottom plant, there should be virtually no runoff.”
In the market, produce will be sold from the field as well as other produce from area farmers and throughout the southeast. Its goal is to carry as much local produce as possible, but where the produce comes from will depend on the season and availability of the product. The produce carried will be based on the needs of its customers.
The market, which will also have a deli featuring meats and cheeses from Troyer, will also be a place where you can come to enjoy a meal. A small area with tables will be inside the market, as well as seating on the wrap-around porch. Three to four custom sandwiches will be available fresh daily, along with regular and fruit salads, homemade strawberry shortcake, milkshakes, and old-fashioned hard ice cream made fresh in the market. Troyer’s Amish Wedding brand canned and jarred jellies, jams, noodles, fudge, candies and more all-natural food items will also be featured, along with pizza, fresh baked pies, and more.
Valrico residents, the Hoffman’s are also long-time members of St. Stephen Catholic Church. They have four children, two of whom are married and also four grandchildren.
The Hoffman’s plan for a give-back program to the community is shaping up. Local churches, charities and non-profit organizations can participate. Once registered, an organization will be assigned an account number. When a member visits the Farm and purchases produce or product, the purchase will be registered in their system. Fern Hill Family Farms will issue the organization a check representing 10% of the profit from all sales generated by the non-profit’s members each quarter.
Future plans include a pavilion to house picnic tables and be utilized for larger groups, such as field trips, meetings, birthday parties and family reunions. They also intend to establish a produce club where customers can subscribe to have baskets of produce prepared for them on a regular basis.
In the fall, they will plant a corn maze on the back of the property so the community can enjoy a family fall festival.
The market is currently open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m.-5 pm on Sundays. The fields will be open the same hours for u-pick except Monday’s, when they will be closed for farm maintenance. Fern Hill Family Farms is located at 10070 Fern Hill Dr., in Riverview. For more information, visit www.fernhillfamilyfarms.com.