Farmers, Food and Fun: An Intern’s Road Trip Experience with UF/IFAS Extension in Polk County
By Katie Cardenas
My name is Katie Cardenas and I am an agricultural education and communications major at the University of Florida. I am working as an intern for the UF/IFAS Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Program helping to create a beginning farmer and rancher program. Most of my time is spent in Gainesville collecting information on already existing beginning farmer programs around the country as well as getting farmers’ input. However, I recently went on a field trip to shadow Mary Beth Henry from UF/IFAS Polk County Extension to learn more about the diversity of Extension programs and visit farmers in the region.
I visited Mary Beth on Friday and Saturday during June 2016 and my two days there were spent constantly on the go. Mary Beth began my trip by introducing me to several Extension agents around the office and asked them to tell me what they do so that I could get a better understanding of Extension. After listening to all of the Extension agents talk to me about their focus and the tasks they do, I really began to realize how broad Extension really is. It supports the life of Florida residents in so many ways, from helping all types of farmers to educating the general public.
We had planned to help out at a harvesting program that provides produce for food banks, however due to a thunderstorm that week, all the Southern High Bush blueberries were gone. Luckily for me, the alternative was meeting farmers in Polk County.
First, I met Cindy and Gary of Fiddlers Ridge Farm & Winery at their store in Lake Wales. Cindy and Gary are married and produce fruit and make blueberry, honey, and peach wine. This was my fist time behind the scenes of a winery and it was really interesting! Cindy explained to me how they make their wine and told me it takes two and half pounds of blueberries to create one bottle of wine, which was a lot more than I expected. I guess due to the fact that I hadn’t put much thought about the process behind wine. Even though I already respect and appreciate farmers, I really enjoy going to see and talk to them so that I can get a better understanding about what they do and help educate people about farming when I get the chance.
Our next stop was dinner where we shared a meal with Retta Baucom, the farm manager at Shady Oaks Farm in Lakeland. Retta was celebrating her birthday and provided us with dinner. Everything was homemade and off the farm.
Needless to say, it was delicious. Mary Beth showed me around after dinner teaching me about the different fruits and vegetables that we saw. Shady Oaks primarily grows commercial blueberries for sale at grocery stores, but also sells berries for U-pick. They had a large garden and grew a little bit of everything for their own pleasure. It was really great to see the relationship between Mary Beth and Retta. They were more than just work friends: they are genuinely close friends. It showed me the importance of good relationships in Extension. The more a farmer trusts the people in Extension the more they can talk to them and find out what they could do to help.
Mary Beth took me to the Brew Hub before heading back to the hotel room. The Brew Hub is a brewing company that allows microbrewers to scale up and distribute their own unique beer nationally and internationally. They also offer assistance in sales, marketing, and logistics. They keep the atmosphere that most local breweries have, along with selling beer from different breweries around the United States. I would recommend anyone traveling through Lakeland to stop by this great operation.
Saturday morning, Mary Beth took me to talk to Fatima Gill at True Blue Winery in Davenport. Fatima explained her business to me and how it started as only a winery. After adding two years under her belt, she added a bistro. She runs the business with her husband, Howard. I was so impressed! Personally, the idea of having a winery and a bistro on the same property is brilliant. I love that guests literally see the farm before walking into the bistro. It was clear that she is extremely passionate about what she does and that made our whole conversation very enjoyable. She described the obstacles that she has had to deal with over the years that go along with being involved in these two extremely difficult industries. Despite these obstacles, she still manages to keep a smile on her face at all times and loves what she does.
All this talk and excitement about growing vegetables, fruits, and plants throughout the trip, made me realize just how clueless I am in the horticultural area. Most of my experience in agriculture has to do with livestock but, after going on this trip and working in the horticulture building all summer, I’ve really realized how beneficial it would be for me to learn more about horticulture. As a result, I signed up for a vegetable gardening class in the fall.
Check out the farms and businesses Katie visited in Polk County:
- True Blue Winery and Bistro http://www.truebluewinery.com/bistro.php
- Fiddlers Ridge winery http://www.fiddlersridgefarmswinery.com/
- Shady Oaks https://www.facebook.com/Lakeland-Berries-at-Shady-Oaks-Farm-107936575898598/
- Brew Hub http://brewhub.com/