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Farmer's Market

Alive and picking

While many strawberry farms have seen a decline in U-pick sales, Favorite Farms in Dover just keeps filling up with customers willing to pick their own berries.

By JAY CRIDLIN
Published April 9, 2004

DOVER - Marvin Brown can't help but chuckle at the dozens of bushel-basket-toting youngsters poking around his strawberry patch.

"I love those kids," he drawls, staring out his pickup's window at a group of field-tripping grade schoolers. "To have the school kids come out here is just a treat for us."

It's a soothing sight for Brown, who knows the end of the peak strawberry season is near.

Each March and April, as many as 400 berry pickers a day come to Brown's Favorite Farms in Dover to pick his crop clean.

The price - three quarts for a dollar - hasn't changed much since Favorite Farms began welcoming U-pickers 25 years ago.

Of course, if you're on a school field trip, a quarter will buy you all the berries you can pick.

It's always good to bring kids to the farm, Brown says, "especially if we can get down on their level and talk to them, explain to them a little bit about agriculture. Let them know that milk comes from a cow instead of from Publix."

The U-pick season may net Brown a few extra thousand dollars - a drop in the ocean compared to the success his farms enjoy year-round.

At 55 acres, Favorite Farms is among the largest of six Hillsborough County farms that Brown, a third-generation strawberry farmer, owns or co-owns with his partners at BBI Produce Inc.

The two Bs in BBI stand for Berry Boss, and it's hard to refute that claim.

Brown and his partners have six farms, encompassing 800 acres and 1,200 employees, spread across eastern Hillsborough County. BBI shipped more than 1-million flats this year alone, and Brown anticipates the company's 2004 sales will approach $14-million.

Favorite Farms in Dover is the company's home base, both literally and figuratively. It was Marvin and Linda Brown's first farm - sharecropped, then purchased in the late 1970s - and they still live in a house nestled between patches of strawberries and cantaloupe.

During the peak strawberry months, each acre at Favorite Farms yields as many as 3,000 strawberry flats, for revenues of about $25,000.

This time of year, production is winding down. The fields are still red with strawberries, though, meaning residents from as far as South Georgia now have a chance to pick themselves what ordinarily they could only buy at a grocery store.

One recent day, three generations of a Winter Haven family blanketed the field. Violet Vegter, 79, brought her two daughters, Carol Hopkins, 46, and Karen Dekker, 42, and nine young relatives whose ages ranged from 6 to 13.

"We remember our mom taking us when we were younger," Dekker said, "so we want to make sure we do it for our kids."

Vegter has been coming to pick strawberries in Hillsborough County for 20 years, many of them at Favorite Farms.

"They're still good," she said. "They're really beautiful, red berries. And they're big. You can stand in one place and just about get a quart."

Brown said many U-pick businesses have suffered of late, either from the public's lack of interest or lack of free time.

"But because we have built up such a clientele, we haven't seen a decrease in it at all," he said.

And as long as the schoolchildren keep coming out in droves, Brown, a grandfather himself at 58, will keep kneeling in his strawberry patches to explain the difference between a Camarosa and a Camino Real.

"We enjoy the people coming out," he said. "Of course, they enjoy it also."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 8, 2004, 12:20:14]

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