A farmer's story: Upicktopia/Masaryk Winery

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A farmer's story: Upicktopia/Masaryk Winery

Sun, 04/05/2020 - 19:03
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by ROCCO MAGLIO
[email protected]

This past Sunday we set out to purchase fruits and vegetables. We could have gone to the grocery store, but we decided to cut out the middlemen and head to Upicktopia in Masaryktown. Upicktopia is a farm where you pick the fruits and vegetables. 

There were strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries along with an assortment of lettuces, swiss chard, and jalapenos. There are plenty more crops growing that will be ready in the coming months. They also have a farm store where they sell many more fruits, vegetables, and eggs.  

Music is playing as you walk out to the field where you pick the vegetables. That is not the only noise, there's a speaker broadcasting hawk noises to scare away the squirrels and small birds.

If you need vegetables or fruit, this is an excellent choice, if you have a little extra time. It is a large farm so social distancing is easier than at the grocery store. The buckets are disinfected between users and there is a wash sink to use before you go picking.

The farm is also home to the Masaryk Winery. You can pick up a few bottles after gathering your produce. They are known for their Blueberry Wine, although if you are a traditionalist you can buy a Merlot.

This is a great outing with kids. They can see where their food comes from and get a taste of the work it takes to pick their food.

The owner of the farm is Daniel Ebbecke.  Here is his story about how the farm came to be.

How did I get here? Or Growin' Crazy!

March 30, 2020
By: Daniel Ebbecke

Masaryk Winery and Upicktopia evolved from my life experiences and is an extension of where I have been and what I have learned in my 63 years of life.
People who come to the farm and winery get a unique experience. It is the expression of my passions.

I traveled all over the country in my youth and wandered further afield as a Merchant Marine captain. Living everywhere from California to New Jersey, the Congo and Trinidad, and Portugal gave me an opportunity to learn things that helped me create the vision I have for the farm. Many places in the world grow their own vegetables and make their own wine. Outside of our borders, being self sufficient is more of a necessity than a lifestyle. Having a few fruit trees in the yard, some chickens and a vegetable patch provides something to eat. Whether it is collards and turnips, dasheen and cassava, or nopales and mangoes, it adds to the food security of a family. Most of the people I met along the way were gracious enough to teach me how to make and grow these things.

Growing up reading Mother Earth News, Prevention magazine and Rachael Carson made me want to be a good steward of the land and helped guide my decisions. 

I always wanted to grow. My Mom, Joan, likes to tell stories about me planting things as a kid and how I produced lots of vegetables in the backyards of the places we lived.

In 1979, after returning from 6 months working in the Mexican oil fields I bought my first piece of land that is still part of our farm and is where my home and winery are located.

In 1996 I met a man on the side of the road off I-75 and state road 52 selling blueberry plants. Stopping to buy some for the yard, the man started to go on and on about the huge opportunity in growing commercial blueberries. I had just retired from the Merchant Marine and was running a charter fishing business, “Light”n” charters, out of Hernando Beach with my father. We were taking turns running the boat, so I had some free time. We planted our first acre that year. Business was good and we planted another acre, then 9 more then 4 more, acquiring land and equipment along the way. 

The first ten years were great! Money was coming in and I made friends and connections in the blueberry industry that allowed me to see the big “AG” picture. In 1999 I met Mark Greef, a young man from South Africa, at a Florida Blueberry Growers Association meeting. Through him I met Jerry D’Amore, VP of Driscolls. Mark and the people at Driscolls educated us on food safety and good fruit handling practices. Through them, our fruit was going as far afield as Japan and the United Kingdom. My workshop became a packing house and we packed other local farms' blueberries and shipped them out to the world from sleepy Masaryktown.

Then things started to go south, we had a bad freeze one year, a late harvest another. Mexico, Chile, and Georgia encroached on our market window. The crash of 2008 added another layer of difficulty to the once very profitable business. It became more difficult to find people willing to pick the berries at the quality level demanded by the buyers. All of this on top of the larger growers taking over the market. I had to make a decision: get bigger like some of the others and take the risk that the market would be flooded while I am leveraged with a big mortgage or do something else. They had just paved the dirt road in front of the farm making access easier to the farm. I recalled an article I read in a magazine many years before about a man who inherited the family farm that his father worked all his life earning a meager living, growing cotton and soybeans. Being in advertising, he decided to market the farm and sell direct to the customer, growing fresh vegetables and chicken. His retail customers would pay way more than the wholesalers and appreciated the freshness of the produce. I decided to try this business model.

Things were slow at first. A bunch of produce was never picked. I had friends come to get stuff to feed the chickens and cows. Undeterred, I continued to grow vegetables. Each year, removing an acre of blueberries and planting other things. Strawberries came next, then blackberries. The propagation greenhouses that produced hundreds of thousands of blueberry plants were converted to growing cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and eggplants. Last year we planted tangerines and oranges using the latest technology to avoid the citrus greening that is devastating our citrus industry. Trying to grow as many things as you would find in a typical produce aisle is very challenging but for me, that is the fun part. We only plant the seeds, God grows them.

The winery

In 2015 my nephew, Joshua Dancsak, kept urging me to start a winery. We had plenty of blueberries and were making some great wine with them for our own consumption. Reluctant to start another business while trying to grow the one that was already started, I said no. He called me one day and asked me if I would go down to Tarpon Springs to pick up some stainless steel fermenters that were for sale at a local microbrewery and if I would store them in our, now unused, packing house. Eventually he talked me into applying for the licenses, permits and zoning approval for the winery. We started to make wine and gave free samples to the u pick customers while we waited for all the red tape to go away. The wine was well received by our customers who wanted to buy some but we could not sell it at that time. The packing house was converted into a winery and tasting room. Finally, a year later, with all the permits and licenses in hand, we started to sell our product. We experimented with different fruits and methods. Our first three bottles were blueberry, strawberry and blackberry. Later, we tried watermelon, a dud! Peach was so so.

After three years of working together, we had a falling out. Josh asked me to buy him out of the deal and we parted. There were some hard feelings to be sure but I never stopped loving my nephew. I can honestly say that without his urging, the winery would have never existed.

About that time, Rayetta Aviles came to the farm. With her depth of knowledge in wine and hospitality, she made a welcome addition to the business. She is the nice lady you meet at the winery.

Today we have 9 different bottles made here to offer our customers: Dry Blueberry, Sweet Blueberry, Strawberry, Blackberry, Blackberry/ Blueberry blend, Carlos, Peach on a beach, Sunset Sangria, and a nice Merlot. We have a tangerine in the experimental stages and two exquisite wines from Chautauqua Winery in the Pan Handle. There is a cooler stocked with draught beers but sadly, due to the coronavirus, we cannot pour you a glass, we can only sell bottles to take off premises.

There is plenty of room to spread out and practice social distancing. We limit the number of people inside the buildings and sanitize everything constantly, to keep it as safe as possible.

I pray that everyone will show responsibility, the threat is real. We need everyone to participate, if we are to get clear of this pandemic.
    
IF YOU GO:
Address: 19125 Phillips Rd #6952, Masaryktown, FL 34604
Hours: FRI-SAT-SUN 9AM–6PM
Phone: (352) 308-0110
Bring a hat!  The farm provides produce bags and sanitized buckets/baskets.
 

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