On Friday January 29, 2021 an agricultural tour was held which highlighted the examples of resources available to enable farmers to take advantage of the latest science to improve their farming practices. The tour highlighted four farms with lunch at a fifth farm. The four farms on the tour were Ferris Farms, M&B Dairy, JG Ranch, and Florida Sun Hops with Cavallo Farm & Market being the farm visit for lunch.
Ferris Groves farm is located near Floral City on an island in the Withlacoochee River. The farm has acres of strawberries and blueberries. It used to be largely citrus, but freezes and greening led to them switching crops. Ferris Groves also runs a small cattle operation.
Ferris Groves has a retail store located at 7607 S Florida Avenue in Floral City, which is open from November through April. They sell oranges, strawberries and blueberries grown on their farm, fresh strawberry or orange milk shakes, and many more farm stand products.
Ferris Groves harvests the berries and sells them commercially. Their strawberries are sold under the label of Wish Farms as well as a portion under their own label. They hand harvest and over the course of their season they employ up to a hundred laborers. The strawberries are field packed which means that strawberries are picked and placed in the containers that they are sold in. The blueberries are picked into a large container and later placed in the containers they are sold in that may also contain berries from other farms.
The blueberries are planted three rows of one variety and then three rows of another variety. The varieties are emerald and jewels. They alternated the variety every three rows for cross pollination, but is not so important anymore.
Ferris Groves also has four to five honey bee and bumblebee hives per acre to pollinate the blueberry plants. Bumblebees don’t store honey like honey bees so bumblebees have to go out in poor weather to forage which is why they have both.
Ferris Groves is said to be on an island because there is a lake on one side and Withlacoochee River on the other side. All this water helps to moderate the freezes.
Ferris Groves plants small Florida strawberry plants which are supplied by three nurseries: two nurseries in Canada and one from Idaho. The plants are delivered in August when the weather up north is 50s at night and 70s during the day. They water the new plants heavily at first to help them get acclimated to their new environment.
Ferris Groves works with state scientists from University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension (IFAS) to optimize their operation. They have a Florida Automated Weather Network (FAWN) Cooperative weather system on site. This keeps them informed of the latest weather and lets them see how the weather is trending, because during a freeze they want to protect the fruit while using the least amount of water to prevent damage to the plants. The system monitors temperature, precipitation, moisture and this lets them water only when it is necessary.
During freezing temperatures, it’s important to make sure the water will turn to ice before they water the strawberries. Ice acts as an insulator around the fruit, protecting it from freezing temps. A good indicator that the water will freeze is if the water has frozen around the blueberries. If that has happened, then it’s safe to water the strawberries. The strawberry flower is very delicate and overwatering can damage the plant.
The FAWN system also monitors and warns about fungus risk as it measures leaf wetness and moisture. The software can take into account if they recently used fungicide and will inform them if they need to apply fungicide.
Ferris Grove uses their sprinkling system to deliver fertilizer. They dispense the fertilizer and only water for the amount of time that it will take to get the fertilizer to the plants’ roots. If they water too long the fertilizer will not be available to the plants.
This attention to detail and monitoring information lets Ferris Groves use the least amounts of water, fertilizer, fungicide, etc saving them money and protecting the environment.
M&B Dairy is a family owned dairy who specializes in producing small package milk for school and other institutional customers. Their processing plant is located in Tampa.
In a dairy it is paramount to make the cows happy, since happy cows produce more milk. A dairy cow spends a majority of her time in beds so bedding is a key ingredient. M&B has tried several types of bedding for the cows from plastic mats to water beds to sand beds. They are proud of their white sand beds for the cows.
One of the struggles of a dairy farm is removing organic waste produced by the cows. M&B washes out the barns and then captures the run off into large retention areas. They can then separate the organic materials from the sand. The organic materials are then used to water grow crops such as oats and tifton 44 hay, that are raised to feed the cattle. They sell some of the dry organic material to Black Kow Manure.
M&B Dairy recently increased the size of their water holding facilities which enable them to wait until the optimal time to spray the crops with the water containing organic matter. Some crops cannot utilize the organic matter at certain times in their life cycle, the larger water holding facilities enable M&B Dairy to wait until the fertilizer will do the most good for the crops.
M&B Dairy has been able to produce much more milk with their adaptations. When they started an average cow was producing 40 pounds of milk a day, today the average cow is producing 90 pounds of milk.
The Dairy also has an eye to the future. Many people who have been told they are lactose intolerant are actually intolerant of the A1 amino acid. Cows are either A1, A2 or a mixture. The new cows they are purchasing are A2 milk producing cows, so they are able to produce milk that people with A1 intolerance can still drink.
Cavallo Farm and Market
For lunch the tour visited the Cavallo Farm and Market. It is located at 8123 S Lecanto Highway in Lecanto. This is a U-Pick blueberry farm as well as a winery, events venue, and market. They serve breakfast and lunch and will soon be adding a steakhouse.
Cavallo Farm was established by Philip Bomhoff in 2015. He described some of his experiences with the farm. At first the farm had grown blueberries for commercial sale, but because of the difficulties of obtaining farm labor for the limited time they needed them, they switched to U-Pick.
The farm tries to use mostly natural techniques. They have not had to use pesticides, because they have been able to hand control caterpillars and other pests.
The farm is immaculately maintained. It is easy to see why it is chosen as an events venue.
JG Ranch is a U-Pick farm located at 17200 Wiscon Road in Brooksville. It is a little ways down a dirt road which dead ends at the farm.
They provide a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables depending on the season. They have a large amount of U-Pick strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries, but as everything is seasonal they recommend calling 352-799-0556 to find out what is currently available. They have seven bee hives to pollinate their crops.
The farm is located in a wet area, which means they don’t have to water as often, but they have to fight mold. Every week they spray fungicide religiously following the labels to ensure safety.
The COVID-19 shutdown actually helped their business. More people saw the value of picking their food and took the opportunity to get outdoors.
In addition to fruits and vegetables they also have a small cattle operation. They sell the beef by the quarter, half and whole. They do not sell steaks since the nearest cattle slaughterhouse approved by the USDA to cut for commercial use is in Ocala.
Florida Sun Hops
Located in Brooksville at three acres it is one of the largest hops farms in the southeast. Hops is a key ingredient in making beer and with the popularity of microbreweries, it is an up and coming crop.
Hop farming is relatively new to the southeast and the farm works closely with UF/IFAS to determine best practices. Hops usually grow further north, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, and require long hours of daylight during the summer to trigger their growth. To grow them in Florida it is necessary to trick the plants by using lights to make them think that it is long summer days. A benefit to growing the crop in Florida is that you get two crops a year as opposed to only one during the summer in the northwest.
The farm also has a Fertigation system to deliver fertilizer via the irrigation system. This system allows them to use only the minimal amount of fertilizer necessary.
The farm is distinctive as lines of telephone poles with wired lighting strung between them with lights hanging from the wires. The hop plants can grow 25 to 30 feet tall and they have the plants grow up leads hanging down from the wires.
Marker 48 recently brewed a beer using Florida Sun Hops and it should still be available, if you want to taste hops grown in Brooksville. The beer had a grapefruit flavor.