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Strawberry farms offer easy pickings
Sherry Boas
Sentinel Correspondent

January 13, 2003

Just when early varieties of citrus begin changing from green to bright orange, another popular fruit also is starting to ripen. Sweet, red strawberries are available in Central Florida from mid-October through the end of May.

An excellent source of vitamin C, vitamin K and dietary fiber, strawberries also supply manganese, pantothenic acid, vitamins B1 and B6, biotin, folate and iodine. But it's their flavor that makes them a popular fruit.

Strawberries can be grown hydroponically or conventionally, and both types of farms are found in Central Florida.

Conventional farmers grow their berries in mounded rows of soil mulched with black plastic, out of which two to three lines of trailing plants protrude and flourish. Pickers at these farms squat or bend down to collect berries by the bucketful.

At hydroponic operations, pickers reach up to pluck fruit off vines planted in vertical growing frames. Multiple plants hang in upright stacks suspended from pipes through which nutrient-enriched water flows.

Conventional farming operations have been the norm for decades, but hydroponic farms have grown in popularity through the years, partly because of Tim Carpenter, a Marion County horticulturist, businessman and inventor who developed a hydroponic system called Verti-Gro.

Carpenter's patented system is used in four of the six you-pick farms in Marion, Lake and Polk counties.

No matter how they are grown, strawberries are easy to pick. The plants do not have briars or thorns, and the berries grow in clusters, so a bucket can be filled with ripe fruit in a short time. People of all ages can pick strawberries.

Oak Haven Farm in Sorrento and Far Reach Farm in Tavares grow their strawberries the conventional way.

Oak Haven,on Bird Road off Wolf Branch Road near Mount Dora, is beginning its seventh season. The farm has a roadside produce stand in addition to its you-pickberries. The stand specializes in the sale of picked strawberries and a full line of vegetables. Custom-made gift baskets also are popular.

"This year we're adding something new," owner Karen Stauderman said. "People can come by and try our homemade strawberry shortcake and strawberry milkshakes."

The shakes and shortcakes will be available to take out or to eat at the farm in the picnic area shaded by several huge oak trees. The farm stand has access for disabled persons, and sugar-free versions of the ice-cream drinks and cake are available.

"It's been a late season with all the cold this year," Stauderman said, "but as it begins to warm up, we should have an excellent crop again."

Karen Brothers of Far Reach Farm on South Dora Boulevard off County Road 561 in Tavares also expects a good season for strawberries. The 12-acre you-pick strawberry field contains more than 30,000 plants.

"This is our seventh year of operating the farm," Brothers said.

"We have a lot of people who come to pick every year and tell their friends about us."

For a different picking experience, people may stop by one of the four hydroponic farms where hanging gardens of ripe strawberries grow out in the open or in greenhouses.

There are two you-pick hydroponic farms in Marion County and one each in Lake and Polk counties.

Picking in Paradise, the you-pick strawberry farm started by Tim Carpenter and now run by his brother, Wendell, is in Belleview next to the Markets of Marion on U.S. Highway 441 just north of The Villages.

"Most of my customers come from The Villages and Lady Lake," said Wendell Carpenter. "In addition to picking fruit, some buy the strawberry and blueberry plants we sell."

Also in Marion is Verti-Gro Hydroponic Growing Systems at 15000 S.E. U.S. Highway 441 in Summerfield.

Strawberry Cove on North Buckhill Road in Howey-in-the-Hills is starting its second season this year. Surrounded by acres of citrus, Strawberry Cove offers pickers citrus, fresh salad greens, tomatoes and herbs in addition to hydroponically grown strawberries.

"This year we are offering homemade preserves, jams and marmalades," said Alan Starbird, owner of Strawberry Cove.

"We are also making fresh-squeezed orange juice from our own oranges."

In Polk County, Pete Snively operates The Berry Patch at 2775 Register Road in Winter Haven, another Verti-Gro hydroponic berry farm.

"We've been picking for two months already and expect to pick all the way up until June 1," said Snively, who has added 50 percent more plants this year to his farm.

"People come from as far away as Orlando to pick our berries. I always tell people, the earlier in the day they come the better the picking will be."

Copyright © 2003, Orlando Sentinel

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