Floral City is a picture of old Florida. It
is situated in the dappled shade of oak trees at the beginning of the
Tsala Apopka chain of lakes, which run north into the Gulf of Mexico
along the Withlacoochee River. The town sits squarely at the
mid-point of the Withlacoochee State
Trail, a state park.
Floral City also has its own very special
island – one that is filled every winter with citrus, strawberries
and blueberries. Duval Island is about a mile long and a quarter-mile
wide, and most of it is made up of Ferris Farms.
Dudley Calfee is Ferris Farms’ general
manager. “We put 1.7 million strawberry plants in the
ground,” he said. “We’ve got about 83 acres. As soon
as the strawberry season ends, the workers are in place to begin picking
blueberries, which we have on about 20 acres.” The farm also has
25 acres of citrus groves, which is how it all began.
Could have been a golf
L.G. “Doc” Ferris, a relative of
George Ferris, Jr., inventor of the Ferris wheel, had big dreams back in
1925. He planned to create a golf course community for millionaires on
Duval Island, but his timing was off. The Florida real estate market
collapsed, ending his plans. Ferris wasn’t giving up, though. He
decided to grow citrus.
Dudley Calfee, Ferris Farms' general manager,
says what he does isn't a job, it's a way of life that he
Ferris began planting citrus trees in 1931. The
trees thrived in the rich soil of the island. Thanks to his marketing
savvy, the effort was a success. He opened a retail store, which still
operates in its original location on Route 41 selling fruit in season,
jams and jellies, candies and wonderful fresh strawberry milkshakes. The
store is located just off the Withlacoochee State Trail and offers
hikers and cyclists a cool break.
Ferris passed away in 1975. After the 1977
freeze, his widow decided to get out of the business. She sold it to
Southern Citrus Corporation. Freezes in the 1980s devastated the groves,
so while replanting, the company diversified into
Calfee appreciates the uniqueness and culture
of the farm as well as the Floral City area. He grew up in Clearwater,
Florida and spent much of his working life in construction management.
He calls his work at Ferris Farms not so much a job as a lifestyle, one
he and his wife embrace.
“People either love this kind of life or
hate it,” Calfee said. “We love it. You have to be able to
deal with what Mother Nature hands you. But I like the challenge,”
he said. “You can control a lot of variables in agriculture, but
not the weather.”
freezes are a threat, being surrounded by water means the farm exists in
a unique ecosystem. It is situated far to the north of most strawberry
operations, but the temperature is regulated somewhat by the Lake Tsala
Apopka. “Also, being so far north, we have a lot of experience
mitigating freeze damage,” Calfee said.
“But the thing I love most about being a
part of this business is the people – the culture,” Calfee
said. “We’re lucky. We have good workers because we treat
them with respect, provide housing and offer a longer season because
we’re diversified. Getting a dependable workforce is, I think, the
biggest issue we have in this business. Congress and the American people
in general have to realize how important this country’s food
supply is. You can be the best farmer out there [and] grow the best
products. But if no one is around to harvest them, they’re worth
nothing,” he said.
Ferris Farms sells the bulk of its berries to
retail outlets through the brokerage services of Plant City-based Wish
Farms. Citrus, including navel and Valencia oranges and Fall Glow
tangerines, is sold to commercial picking companies that market the
product to packers and shippers.
To sample the sweet island fruit of Ferris
Farms, visit historic Floral City and stop by the Ferris Groves retail
store by the trail. More information is available here. Ferris also ships gift fruit. The store
is open from mid-October to May, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through