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Heirloom tomato and pepper seedlings in the foreground, and a forest of ginger and turmeric in the back.

Heirloom tomato and pepper seedlings in the foreground, and a forest of ginger and turmeric in the back.

A few days ago I paid a visit to Bee Heaven Farm, and took a peek inside the big, new greenhouse. What I saw was amazing — a sea of vegetable and herb seedlings growing in flats of little black plastic pots. They filled almost one half of the 60 foot wide by 90 foot long greenhouse. In the other half of the greenhouse was a double row easily 60 feet long, of larger plants, mostly ginger and turmeric, growing in large felt pots.

I lost count of how many plants I was looking at, so let’s just say that there was about 250 square feet of young plants and seedlings. That’s a lot more than what Farmer Margie Pikarsky had started this time last year, growing plants on long benches made of recycled wooden pallets.

Almost all these young plants are destined for the farm’s seedling sale at Redland GrowFest! which is coming up this weekend. The sale is the heart and purpose of the festival, started and run by Margie, which celebrates all things local and growing.

As I strolled up and down the greenhouse rows taking pictures, I stopped here and there to read the labels. Herbs include Cuban oregano, basil, lemongrass and cilantro. Hotheads will rejoice to see a wide variety of peppers, both hot and mild — datil, bird, bishop’s crown, hot thai, wiri wiri, Anaheim, Jimmy Nardello and cachucha, to name a few.

Heirloom tomato seedlings.

Heirloom tomato seedlings.

And fans of heirloom tomatoes have the usual wide assortment to choose from. Shapes and colors range from large, small, pear shaped, oval, round, yellow, orange, black, green striped, and of course classic red round and plum. The names of the heirloom tomatoes are just as varied — green envy, Juliet, podland pink, Ukrainian purple, black krim, sweet million, sunset pear, Japanese oxheart, garden peach (yes, a fuzzy tomato!), Arkansas traveler. These are tried and true varieties that do well in our South Florida heat and humidity, and which Margie plants on her farm season after season.

Both the farm and the Fruit and Spice Park, where Redland GrowFest! is held, are inside the Oriental Fruit Fly (OFF) quarantine zone. I asked Margie if that was going to create a problem. She explained that it’s business as usual this year. “There’s no drastic changes this year. Seedlings and plants without fruit are not an issue,” she told me. “Greens and herbs are ok too.”

To make sure that everything is safe, and no flies are found, Margie explained that all plant and fruit vendors had to sign an FDACS compliance agreement that stated they are taking all required precautions against the OFF. “Fruit has to be covered to provide protection for the potential host material.” Fruits in season now are avocados, guavas, carambola and pitaya, and they will have to be kept inside fine mesh screening or plastic containers to keep the dangerous little flies away. The OFF lays its eggs inside fruit. No fruit — or no access to fruit — there’s no fly and no problem. The only thing that visitors can’t do is bring fallen fruit out of the park.

Dried bananas are sweet, chewy, and full of real banana flavor.

Dried bananas are sweet, chewy, and full of real banana flavor.

You won’t find fresh fruit at the Bee Heaven Farm tent. “Dried fruit is my thing,” Margie said, and her fruit dryer has been humming night and day this summer. She is offering a choice of dried carambola, mamey, mango, persimmon, or bananas, and a mixed assortment called Fruits of Summer. Fruit that has been processed in some way — dried, or made into jam, for example — is safe against the fly.

So come to the festival to buy seedlings and plants for your garden this growing season, and stay to listen to live music, and eat delicious local food. There’s a full schedule of live demos and presentations given by gardening and plant experts who will share a wealth of knowledge — all included in the price of admission! It’s the fourth year for Redland GrowFest! and it looks like it’s going to be the best year so far.

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Written by Sheryl Dutton
Photos courtesy of Sheryl Dutton

I came across a unique opportunity one day last spring, as I drove around Redland. I had been living in the area for roughly a year, dreaming of starting my own organic farm and homestead. Farming had been a hobby of mine for some time and although my projects had been confined to small plots, I was driven by big ideas. I wanted more experience, working with the land and learning how to turn my love of farming into a possible business. I had recently visited Robert Barnum of Possum Trot Farm to gather fruit and art supplies from his 40-acre grove of rare and useful trees. While I was there, I decided to ask Robert if he needed an apprentice or knew of any opportunities to learn more about farming. Luckily he said yes. He mentioned a New Farmer Apprenticeship Program offered by Florida International University’s Agroecology department, funded by a USDA grant. I got in touch with the program director and applied right away.

The New Farmer Apprenticeship Program included a variety of monthly workshops and 100 hours of field experience. I attended workshops on topics like beekeeping, laurel wilt disease detection, how to apply for farm loans, grants and more. I got to meet many young, prospective farmers with similar goals as mine and the same insatiable thirst for knowledge. For my fieldwork I chose to go to Bee Heaven and Possum Trot, both established Redland farms within 5 miles of my home.

Sheryl and her two boys, attending Farm Day 2013, at Bee Heaven Farm.

Sheryl and her two boys, attending Farm Day 2013, at Bee Heaven Farm.

I started out with Margie Pikarsky on her 5 acre certified organic Bee Heaven Farm. I had been a member of her highly recommended CSA program for about 4 years and had attended events there with my family. I was familiar with the farm and knew I had a lot to learn from Margie. We had spoken many times about our favorite plants, our adventures with chickens and other things when I’d pick up my produce every Saturday. I knew she ran a very organized and well-managed farm but I didn’t know exactly what was involved until I had the chance to work side by side with her and her staff. I got to experience part of the busy CSA season, how all the orders came in, were distributed and then prepared to take to market. Some days we’d work in the packinghouse and fill hundreds of orders, other days we’d work out in the field harvesting or preparing the beds for new crops. Everything about her farm is carefully planned out, solidified by many years of experience and held to a very high standard. I likened her operation to a well-oiled machine, always recalibrating to the whims of Mother Nature.

Sheryl, Robert and John

Sheryl, Robert and John

Then I switched gears, moving on to what would be an unforgettable experience at Possum Trot Farm with Robert Barnum. I had heard many stories about the 40-acre wonderland from friends of mine and after visiting a few times, my interest was piqued. Robert’s collection of rare, edible and useful tree species is quite special.

The mix of mature trees living there are the result of many decades of work, collecting, preserving, selecting and sometimes naming new varieties. He proudly refers to himself as a land steward of the many fruits, nuts, hardwoods, citrus and more that he has cared for throughout his life. For me and the other apprentices that worked there, Possum Trot was an ideal outdoor classroom and Robert’s unique approach to mentoring was a one of a kind experience. Each day was a new adventure. One day we’d be identifying trees, harvesting or cleaning up the nursery, another day we’d be attending an auction, repairing equipment or cooking up interesting meals in his kitchen. Every conversation was educational and I’d say that I definitely learned more than I bargained for!

Nursery maintenance, Possum Trot

Nursery maintenance, Possum Trot

The overall message I gleaned from my time at Bee Heaven and Possum Trot confirmed what I knew but in my hopeful naivety had not accepted. Farming for profit, no matter what angle you come at it, is hard work with unpredictable returns and a multitude of political obstacles to navigate. In my opinion farming has got to be one of the most underappreciated and underpaid professions out there. Don’t get me wrong, there are many successful farmers out there, making a living and making a difference. In no way do I mean to undermine them, but for the most part, the industrial food system (big agriculture) has stacked the odds against local, small farmers. In a way it has forced them to be more innovative. There is a growing trend to eat local and organic, to avoid GMOs and packaged foods. We’re getting back to the basics of fresh, nutrient rich foods like our great grandparents enjoyed. Our health as individuals and as a culture depends on it.

Beekeeping workshop

Beekeeping workshop

Maybe more importantly than the effect our food system has on people, are the long lasting, possibly irreversible effects that conventional farming practices are having on the environment. Small scale, intensive farming has been proven to be more sustainable over time when compared to conventional single crop farming. Widespread uses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides have been described by many as an attack on the living world. Conventional farming practices not only pollute the air, water and soil but also pollute the bodies of all living things. Turning a blind eye is not an option.

I wasn’t able to complete my apprenticeship with FIU for personal reasons but I did greatly appreciate the chance to get a behind the scenes look at some of the farms and farmers I had come to admire over the years. The experience did however alter my plans of starting my own organic farm in Redland. After meeting some second-generation farmers in the area and hearing their stories of growing up in Homestead, I questioned whether it would be the best thing for my family. I had to ask myself, “Was farming the kind of future I wanted for my children? Was starting an organic farm a sound investment that I could manage with predictable returns?” My answer to both was an unfortunate no. I decided that I was content to be an avid collector of plants and trees, a small scale, backyard farmer and a supporter of local food. I get to work out my big ideas and make a positive impact in other ways.

View from Poindexter's tailgate

View from Poindexter’s tailgate

I feel like there is a lot of work to do in this area in what might be the most important shift of our generation: Transitioning from being mass consumers to abundant producers, reworking our value system into something that directly benefits us rather than distracts us, utilizing our land in ways that support our health and wellness without disrupting the ability of the natural world to support all life for generations to come. Like I said, big ideas and while we’re at it, why not reinvent what it means to be a farmer in a changing world. The New Farmer Apprenticeship position through FIU’s Agroecology Program addressed just that. It was a valuable experience for me that helped shape my future plans and solidify my understanding of the local food system where I live and beyond. All stereotypes aside, farmers have the job of feeding us all. It’s a big responsibility and they deserve our support! Eat up!

Sheryl Dutton

Sheryl Dutton

Sheryl Dutton currently lives in Miami with her family and works as a Permaculture Designer, specializing in the design and installation of tropical fruit groves, edible forest gardens and small kitchen gardens. Sheryl is the owner of Earthscape Art & Design and is available for consultations.

 

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Lychees in the morning

Come and get your last taste of lychee sweetness before it’s all gone for the summer! Bee Heaven Farm will be selling Green Grove organic lychees the weekend of June 13th and 14th at the Redland Summer Fruit Festival, located at the Fruit and Spice Park.

Juan, up in the bucket, picking lychhes.

Up in the bucket picking lychees.

As the early morning sun painted dappled golden light on the lychee trees, Steve Green met me at the front gate and let me into his grove. The picking crew of three had already arrived less than an hour before. This was the second picking of the season, and there would be a few more more in May and June before all the fruit was all harvested. I walked down a row of lychee trees and heard Juan, the picker, before I saw him. He stood in the bucket of a yellow machine on wheels with a crane arm (known as a cherry picker) and rose up the side of a tree. A stack of plastic bins was fastened to the side of the bucket, where he put clusters of ripe lychees. Juan started at the top of a tree, and with an experienced eye, checked every cluster for ripeness. He clipped only the ripe clusters and put them into the bin, and angled around the tree to reach more fruit.

Clusters of lychees ripening in the morning sun.

Clusters of lychees ripening in the morning sun.

You can’t tell by the color when a lychee is ripe. “When they are ready, lychees get rounder, and the little spikes in the skin flatten out,” Steve explained to me as he rubbed his thumb over the rough skin of a lychee he took from a bin. “Ripeness depends on how much sun and rain the fruit gets. Not all the fruit on a tree will ripen at the same time,” he added. Steve knows when the fruit is ripe to pick by tasting a few when the time comes. “An unripe fruit has some bitterness and too much acidity,” he said, “while a ripe fruit has a balance of tart and sweet.” He cracked the skin with a bite, then peeled and tasted. “One more day and it’ll be perfect. But I like mine a little on the sour side.” He handed me a lychee, and for me it was not too sour and just the right amount of sweet.

Grower Steve Green getting ready to taste a lychee for ripeness.

Grower Steve Green getting ready to taste a lychee for ripeness.

Steve’s dogs can also tell when it’s time to pick. “When the lychees are ripe, they’ll pull some fruit down from the low hanging branches of the trees,” Steve said. “They will make a small stash, and then eat the fruit, but not the skins or pits.” His dogs earn their keep by chasing after squirrels, possum and other intruders that also like to eat fruit.

Jose, the runner, gathers picked lychees.

Gathering picked lychees.

The second man on the crew, Jose, was the runner. He brought more empty bins to the picker, and returned full bins back to the packing table set up beside the farm house. Because this is a certified organic grove, everything that comes into contact with the fruit — the cherry picker, wheelbarrow, table, and all the bins — had been triple sanitized to meet organic standards.

Leticia removes fruit from the clusters, in preparation for sorting and packing.

Leticia removes fruit from the clusters.

Jose dumped a full bin onto the work table, where Leticia, the experienced crew boss and packer, plucked each fruit from its cluster. Her job was to sort the fruit, separating the perfect ones from the less perfect. The lychees that were ripe and pretty went off to one side of the table, to be packed into pint-size plastic clamshells, twelve pints to a box.

The fruits that were split or stained went into a bin off to the other side. Those were graded number twos, and were just as tasty but not as pretty. “The brown spots on the skin of a lychee fruit are called coffee stains,” explained Steve. “They happen when the sugar leaks out that area develops a stain.”

Lychees going from the branch to the bin.

Lychees going from branch to bin.

Back in the grove, Juan, the man in the picking machine, maneuvered around a few trees that didn’t have any fruit on them. Occasionally some trees just won’t bear fruit, even though other trees in the grove are loaded. This season, Steve estimated that his harvest was below average. “A good year is when every tree is loaded,” he said. “I expect to pack out about two thousand pounds this year. In a really good year I’ll pack out fifteen thousand pounds.” On that particular day, they expected to pick 600 pounds of lychees, or 720 pint containers full.

Trees loaded with fruit ripening in the sun.

Trees loaded with fruit ripening in the sun.

Lychee trees are notoriously temperamental. They need the perfect set of circumstances in the winter — a dry winter with enough hours of sufficiently cool temperature or else they just won’t bear in the summer. The whole grove can easily go several years without bearing fruit. When lychee trees do bear, their season is short, four to five weeks on average. Picking usually starts in mid to late May. All of these factors combined make for high retail prices for fresh fruit.

Available at local Whole Foods Markets.

Available at local Whole Foods Markets.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the fruit picking and packing went on. Most of this day’s harvest was going to local Whole Foods stores, the rest to an organic wholesaler. “The Pinecrest produce manager  ordered them and  put them on display in their organic produce section,” Steve said of his pint boxes of lychees, “and the other stores can get them from their regional warehouse.” (I’ve seen Green Grove lychees at the Aventura store.) The number two fruits that were stained but not split were destined for the Bee Heaven Farm web store. (The splits are given to lychee-hungry friends who drop by at the end of harvest days.)

Green Grove lychees are certified organic, so Steve can command higher prices than growers who do not follow such strict growing practices to receive USDA certification. But the extra income goes to pay for extra labor and materials used to control weeds, pests, and diseases. Approved treatments are more expensive,  not as effective, and need to be applied more often. Weeding is done by hand rather than using any herbicide. An organic grower can’t use conventional chemical sprays or fertilizers.

Picking lychees with a cherry picker.

Picking lychees with a cherry picker.

On a walk through the grove, Steve pointed out a handful of trees that had been attacked by two different pests — one group by lychee bark scale insect, and a few others by the Sri Lanka weevil. Scale sucks sap and kills branches, and the weevil cuts notches along the edges of the leaves. The scale is kept in check with regular applications of fish oil spray approved for organic farms, and the weevil is simply tolerated.

Overall, the grove looked fairly healthy, and most trees were loaded with fruit. Steve expected to pick another crop in early June. Then harvesting would be pretty much done for this year. If we have a cool and fairly dry winter coming up, hopefully we can expect a good crop of lychees next year.

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Pepper #30, by Edward Weston

Pepper #30, by Edward Weston

Many years ago, I came across the famous photo of a bell pepper taken by Edward Weston. The pepper was sensuous and and appeared to have a satiny skin. I was transfixed and flummoxed. Where did Weston find such a thing? Turns out he grew the pepper himself. But that didn’t keep me from scouring bins of bell peppers at the grocery stores. Nope, no luck. They were all the same plain boxy shape. No quirks, no twists, no character. Let’s face it, veggies at the supermarket are just plain dull.

Page 42 of the Spring issue, Edible South Florida

Page 42 of the Spring issue, Edible South Florida

It wasn’t until I started hanging out at Bee Heaven Farm taking photos of CSA shares that I came across produce with character. Hallelujah! Of course, I started photographing them! And now, a small part of my collection of wacky veggie pictures has been published on the inside back page of the spring issue of Edible South Florida. Thanks to editor Gretchen Schmidt for selecting the pictures!

Ohhhh myyyyy!!!

Ohhhh myyyyy!!!

Large heirloom tomatoes like to morph various shapes. Carrots get naughty. Daikon are more elegant and like to twist and twine. Eggplants grow noses. And bell peppers tend to grow lobes and knobs. (I still haven’t found one as elegant as Weston’s but that won’t keep me from looking.) Mother Nature is coloring outside the lines.

One man, Jordan Figueiredo, is on a mission to get supermarkets to sell veggies with character, because creating consumer demand for misshapen produce is a good way of reducing food waste. Growers and wholesalers prefer uniformly shaped, blandly “perfect” produce for supermarket sales — and us shoppers have come to expect bland as normal. We lose out on nature’s riotous creativity, which gets wasted, rotten, thrown away.

You can read more about Figueiredo and his mission in the article next to my pictures. His web site lists links for grocery chains, where you can be an ugly veggie activist too. Shoot an email to corporate. Or, ask the produce manager at your favorite grocery store, and remember to keep asking. With enough demand, “uglies” can and will start showing up routinely in grocery stores.

Don’t forget, “uglies” are fun. Over at the farmers market, I’ve seen kids reach first for eggplants with noses, and moms get a giggle at risque carrots. And of course you can start your own collection of produce pictures. Maybe you’ll be the one who finds a pepper as memorable as Weston’s #30.

Dancing daikon

Dancing daikon

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Plethora of peppers

One pound of red jalapeno peppers.

One pound of red jalapeno peppers.

Are you perplexed and puzzled by the plethora of peppers that presented themselves in your prodigious CSA box a couple weeks ago? Ponder no more! Pickle them! I made two different pickles, or ferments, with the peppers. One ferment is with honey, and the other with salt and vinegar.

Three large chopped jalapenos in about a cup of raw wildflower honey. The ferment is about two weeks old.

Three large chopped jalapenos in about a cup of raw wildflower honey. The ferment is about two weeks old.

Hot peppers fermented in honey is simple and fairly quick. Honey is anti-biotic and anti-fungal, and and it makes sense to use it to preserve food. I chopped up three jalapeños, one with seeds and two without, put them in a small jar, and covered them with raw wildflower honey from Bee Heaven Farm. I filled the jar to the shoulder, screwed on the lid. Within a day, the honey grew liquid and syrupy, and by the second day, small bubbles appeared among the chunks of peppers. They were fermenting! I burped the lid every day for a week until the ferment settled.

I started tasting teaspoons of honey on the third day. It was sweet fire! I made a sweet-hot-sour vinaigrette with apple cider vinegar and it was delicious on a green salad. The dressing would be good on a fruit salad too. The hot honey could be used to make a sweet and sour sauce, or simply drizzled on BBQ ribs — or chocolate ice cream. Holy mole! And still-crunchy chunks of sweet pepper could be added to salsa or stir fry for a mellow kick.

Sriracha, day one of fermentation. On the right are seeds saved from five peppers.

Sriracha, day one of fermentation. On the right are seeds saved from five peppers.

That done, I still had three-quarters of a pound of peppers left. It’s too much to eat before they go bad. Time to make hot sauce! And not just any sauce, but sriracha. I found two versions online, one fermented, and one a quick pickle in vinegar. The fermented one caught my imagination.

Out of the 10 peppers left, I seeded half (saved the seeds to grow my own) and cut all of them into chunks. They went into the food processor along with two garlic cloves, some brown sugar and salt. The finely chopped mixture was spooned into a jar and pushed down so its juices would cover as much as possible. It will sit on the kitchen counter for 3 days to ferment. Then the recipe calls for heating the ferment with vinegar, and straining to make the finished sauce. (You could also add a dash of fish sauce for a bit of umami, and maybe a tablespoon of honey to mellow the fire.) Click on the link to get detailed instructions for both versions of sriracha, fermented and vinegar based.

Happy pickling, hot heads!

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Saucy Kohlrabi

White (actually light green) kohlrabi

White (actually light green) kohlrabi

Kohlrabi, that crazy looking bulbous vegetable with large drapey leaves, is at its peak right now. It tastes like a blend of cabbage and turnip, and its name means precisely that — Kohl = cabbage and Rabi = turnip. You can throw it in a salad, or cook it like you would turnips or cabbage. The greens are similar to collards and can be prepared the same way. For those on an ultra-low carb or paleo diet, you can blanch the leaves to soften them, and then use them for wraps.

Kohlrabi started getting harvested in mid-November. It was the mystery dish at farmer Margie Pikarsky’s Thanksgiving Day dinner at the barn. Guests were trying to identify the light colored chunks, covered with sauce and chopped greens. Potatoes? Nein. Kohlrabi? Ja! Give thanks for  that unusual German brassica that was a favorite of Emperor Charlemagne.

Kohlrabi with white sauce

Kohlrabi with white sauce

At Thanksgiving dinner, Margie recounted the tale of when she and her family were traveling in Germany one summer a few years ago. Late in June, they found themselves in the southwestern corner of the country somewhere near Weisbaden. “Imagine a small urban, self-contained neighborhood about six blocks wide, surrounded by farm fields,”  she described. She didn’t remember the name of the town, but she did recall the name of the B&B — the Black Eagle — where they stayed the night. For dinner at the restaurant down the street, they ate farm fresh food.

“I don’t remember the main course,” Margie said, “but they were just starting to harvest peas, so there were baby peas, and baby carrots. They had kohlrabi served with a white sauce made with milk, like scalloped potatoes.” The tour guide they were traveling with said they were eating a typical German farm meal. “Here’s a vegetable you don’t know,” he told the hungry travelers, pointing to the saucy dish. “Nobody from America knows this.” He was expecting to stump Margie, who took a bite and said, “Know this? I grow this!”

In the version of this dish served at Thanksgiving, Margie chopped up the kohlrabi tops, sautéed them until tender, and served them with the bulbs. Mmmm tasty, enjoy!

If you want more kohlrabi and didn’t make it to Pinecrest Market on Sunday, you can go online and order some at the Bee Heaven Farm web store.

Lots of kohlrabi at market.

Lots of kohlrabi at market.

 

Kohlrabi with White Sauce

Ingredients:

4 kohlrabi bulbs, peeled and cubed
Kohlrabi greens, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
3 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
oil for sautéing greens

Directions:

1. Place the kohlrabi and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Cover with water, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until kohlrabi can be pierced with a fork, but remains firm, about 5 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of cooking water. Place kohlrabi in a bowl, and cover.

2. Place the butter into the same saucepan, and melt over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, and stir until the mixture becomes paste-like and golden brown. Gradually whisk the milk and reserved cooking water from the kohlrabi into the flour mixture, stirring until thick and smooth. Stir in the cream, 1 teaspoon salt, and nutmeg until well blended. Continue whisking until sauce thickens, then cook 10 minutes more. Stir in the kohlrabi, tossing to coat evenly with sauce.

3. Heat oil in another saucepan. Add chopped kohlrabi greens. Cook until tender, and serve with the sauced bulbs.

Serves 8.

Based on the recipe here.

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Farm Day fun! Collage by Margie Pikarsky

Farm Day fun! Collage by Margie Pikarsky

10th Annual Farm Day at Bee Heaven Farm

Come to the country * Fun for the whole family * Bring friends!

Sunday December 21st * 11:30 am to 3 pm

Farm Food * Activities * Hay Rides * Farm market and nursery

Live Music * with local singers Jennings and Keller: Fusion Folk Americana

Yoga in the Corral * with CSA member Sheelah Davis of OM Brew Yoga

FREE ADMISSION * Food $10 * Yoga $5 donation * Bring cash. Drooling is free!

We accept credit/debit/SNAP for purchases.

Directions:
From southbound on US1, turn west (right) on Bauer Drive (SW 264 St.) and go approx. 5 miles. The farm is about 1/3 mile west of Redland Road (SW 187 Ave.) Look for the farm signs and flags on your left. Please angle park on the swale and walk on in.

 

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