Someone needs to remind the Extension Service that whenever they need it to rain they should schedule a Farm Tour day. It seems like every time I’ve participated in the Seminole County Farm Tour it rains the whole day. The rain didn’t stop the crowds, however. This was the most heavily attended Farm Tour I can remember! I think attendance was higher than the good farmers had counted on. I wondered if we didn’t seem like stampeding herds or swarming locust to some of the smaller venues.
The day started appropriately for a wet and soggy morning at a farm near the edge of Lake Jesup in Winter Springs. Soggy Acres Pomelo Farm at 100 Tuskawilla Road seemed in danger of being swallowed up by the encroaching “urban lifestyle” Winter Springs Town Center. But as soon as you took a few steps down the dirt driveway and passed through the tree-tangled entrance you could forget you were within spitting distance of eight restaurants, three salons, law offices, medical offices, realtors and a Publix.
Soggy Acres Pomelo Farm is a slice of old Florida. The pomelo is the great-great grandmother of our modern grapefruit, but without the bitterness that can accompany the grapefruit. We missed prime pomelo season which occurs in late winter and early spring along with most of the rest of the citrus fruits. Soggy Acres is a U-Pick pomelo grove that runs on the honor system. The family farmstead sits at the end of the long dirt driveway that bisects the grove. Near the front is a large wooden platform and a big metal mailbox. Sometimes pomelos are picked and left on the platform for customers to buy, or you can bring a basket and wander through the pleasant green trees and pick your own. Either way be sure to leave your payment (cash only) inside the big metal mailbox. Although we didn’t get to taste a pomelo this time, we did get to try mulberries. Soggy Acres is home to more than just pomelos. The farmer has a soft spot for all kinds of fruit trees. In addition to the mulberry trees there were also lychees and a few other exotic tropical residents. Apparently the squirrels and raccoons love them all so harvests are slim on those and reserved for the farm family only.
We left Soggy Acres and headed south on Tuskawilla Road about five miles to Gabriella Lane in Oviedo.
Gabriella Growers, 4875 Gabriella Lane, was stop #2 on the Farm Tour. It was my least favorite of the stops simply because Gabriella Growers was a) a wholesale nursery rather than retail and b) selling only foliage plants for home and office. Sorry, but ferns and pothos just don’t thrill me. I was much more intrigued by the things living and growing on the outside of the greenhouse. The greenhouse was just a vast wasteland of pampered potted plants. Outside we found some very friendly horses, a chicken coop and a nicely tended vegetable garden filled with leeks, cabbage, kale and onions.
Stop #3 took us six miles east to the edge of Seminole County where Red Bug Lake becomes Mitchell Hammock Road. But even that far out we couldn’t shake suburbia as block after block of gated communities stretched on into the horizon. Just past the east campus of Seminole State College is Red Ember Road. The paved highway ends and a wide dirt highway continues on past five acre single-family homesteads. One homestead sported a dazzling male peacock on its roof. The peacock was quite alarmed at the onslaught of cars and pedestrians and spent the whole time screeching his dire warning call. Sundew Gardens, 2212 Red Ember Road, Oviedo, was a few driveways past the peacock and through a leafy arched entrance drive. Sundew Gardens is a U-Pick Vegetable Farm open only to members. It’s really a twist on the popular CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) idea. For a $100 membership fee you get access to the organic vegetable garden, cage-free (but not, it appears, free range) hens’ eggs, and some citrus. The gardens are beautifully maintained with organic compost and worm-casting tea. If you live on the east side of Orlando this place is definitely worth your consideration as an alternative to grocery store produce.
Stop #4 was another place I wasn’t looking forward to. In years past the lunch at Yarborough Ranch left an awful lot to be desired. Frozen Bubba burgers from box to grill and plated up with white bread buns, Fritos and canned sodas are just not my idea of a great farm-to-table experience. Thankfully this year someone had the good sense to make a few changes. It was still grilled burgers but this time the meat came from nearby Geneva Beef Company, an all grass-fed/grass-finished operation. You could taste the difference in the burgers! Instead of GMO-filled snack chips we feasted on fresh corn on the cob with melted butter, locally grown tomatoes, onions, homemade slaw and slow-cooked collard greens. Ok, so they still had white bread buns and HFCS ketchup, but I was happy to go bunless (less carbs for me) and avoid the ketchup. I had a nice conversation with the Geneva Beef Company folks who are proud of their pasture-raised beef. You can find them online with a quick web search to learn how to order their meat. I inquired about bulk quarter, half and whole purchases but for now they only do retail cuts. They hope to add the bulk purchases into their offerings later as they grow the company. I hope it is soon! We need more grassfed beef options in this area. Yarborough Ranch still hasn’t gotten the message. They are still a cow/calf operation. I’m sure most of the Farm Tour folk didn’t realize the beautiful pastures providing the picturesque setting for their lunch were only temporary homes for the young calves who were destined to be shipped across the country to big CAFOs for fast finishing on GMO grain. I couldn’t stomach sitting around for the after-lunch speaker. It was too hard not to get angry and frustrated with the idiot on the microphone telling the crowd how wonderful the Food Safety Modernization Act was. He completely missed telling them how the FSMA was going to be responsible for shutting down four out of the six farms on that very Farm Tour due to the oppressive restraints and industrially focused regulations. The very grassfed burgers, hydroponic tomatoes and organic cabbage they were munching – so much safer and nutritious, and much more delicious, than the CAFO beef and Fritos served in years past – were going to become a thing of the past when the small family farms close their gates under crushing over-regulation. Nope, I couldn’t listen to his lies any longer, so we left early and went on to the next stop.
U-Pick Blackberries and Blueberries, a simple name telling exactly what to expect, is just a mile or two down Snow Hill Road from Yarborough Ranch. 500 Snow Hill Road, Geneva, is the farm address. Blueberries are setting and due to ripen as soon as our nights warm up. Blackberries will follow in late May and early June. Call ahead for picking days and times. Blueberries are $4/lb as I recall. The blackberries hadn’t gotten any leaves or blossoms yet due to the cold weather lately. Hopefully they will catch up – I’m looking forward to a blackberry cobbler soon!
Last stop was one place that really hadn’t anticipated the huge turnout for this year’s Farm Tour. Rest Haven Farm, 381 Rest Haven Road, Geneva, was still in a flurry of preparation activity when the first of the tour-goers trickled up their driveway. The young son, sporting a day-glo orange safety vest, eagerly pointed cars to the few parking spaces available and then panicked trying to figure out where to put everyone else. The crowds quickly overwhelmed the small table set up to sell tomatoes and I heard several disgruntled retirees complaining about the pushing and shoving and elbowing as tired tourists jostled each other for bags of ripe red tomatoes. Tours of the beautiful lettuce tables and the large tomato greenhouse quickly filled to overflowing. We had hoped to buy some of the gorgeous heads of lettuce but there were just too many people and not enough farm family members to go around. I was thankful to slip away from the greenhouse crowd and get back to a calmer, emptier tomato tent. I bought a bowl full of the most delicious tomatoes I’ve had in a long time and happily headed home.