EAST COUNTY — East County farmer Shelby King had visions of selling fresh produce to the public straight from her farm’s land and offering cooking and health classes from the property, among other ventures.
But, the dream that started three years ago is finally taking a new shape.
“It’s been an interesting eight or nine months,” says King of her time struggling with how to better the farm’s future. “I wanted to keep the market. I saw people here enjoying our food. I kept hoping it would work.”
After three years of struggling to make the farm viable financially, she and her husband, Ben, have closed the farm stand this season.
But King Family Farm is not out of business; it’s just adjusting its tactic.
Instead of offering more than 56 different crops to the public, it now will focus its farming efforts on blueberries and peaches, which it sells to distributors and now offers as u-pick to the public each Saturday through May.
“That’s our farming,” King says, as she sits at a picnic table underneath the farm’s open-sided market area. “We’re seasonal (now).”
The King family has one-and-a-half acres dedicated to blueberries for u-pick at its Caruso Road location, but it also has another 253 acres of farmland in Myakka. Produce from that site is being harvested and shipped primarily to Europe. A peach grove at the Caruso Road property provides enough produce for both u-pick and large-scale distribution.
Last season, King Family Farm grew 56 different crops so it could offer patrons a wide variety of produce without bringing produce in from outside farmers.
King says she and her husband have worked hard to avoid using pesticides and other treatments, making most of the produce they sell non-certified organic. Any treatments that have been applied have been organic certified — which comes at a heftier price for the grower.
“If we couldn’t treat safely (in our opinion), then we would pull (the plants out) and start over,” King says, adding that farming practice added time and expense to the family’s farming operation.
Those issues, compounded with unpredictability in the market, forced the Kings to change the course of their farming business. For example, the couple planted one-and-a-half acres of heirloom tomatoes based on a distributor’s promise to buy four pallets of tomatoes a week; the distributor bought one pallet the entire season, after finding tomatoes cheaper from a grower in another country.
“We are unable to grow the way we want (to farm) at a cost that is affordable,” King says, shrugging. “There’s too much labor involved. It kept coming down to I would have to charge a lot more per pound than what the grocery stores charge (to make a profit).”
King quickly turns her attention to what the future does hold: a seasonal farming market with u-pick offerings, educational seminars, dinner events, weddings and other ideas.
Already, King Family Farm is hosting Farm to Table dinners every Wednesday night at the farm. Organizers bring tables into the groves, where a full dinner is served on China. Antonia (A.J.) Latteri-Caster, of The Loft 5, a celebrations, event productions and catering company, prepares the food, and Trevor Bystrom plays music live for guests, who also get a tour of the farm property.
“We have a family garden,” King says. “I tell (A.J.) what we can harvest, and she creates a menu around that. It’s been incredible.”
Cost for the dinner is $50.
King’s original vision — using the farm stand for health-and-wellness classes — also is in the mix. She hopes to start farming and health-and-wellness classes in the fall. She and Ben could teach about agricultural practices, while speakers on health and wellness could include local doctors and other health professionals and educators.
The farm, which is hosting the Faded Jeans and Fancy Grits fundraiser for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Manatee County April 20, also plans to start hosting weddings on the property, as well.
“There’s more than a mile on the Braden River here,” King says.
Additionally, the Kings have a small cottage on the property. Eventually, they hope to offer a farm-stay program, during which visitors can learn about living on the land.
“There are so many ideas, we’re not sure what will happen yet,” King says, smiling.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
IF YOU GO
KING FAMILY FARMS U-PICK
When: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays through May
Where: 4630 Caruso Road, Bradenton
Info: 773-1624 or kingfamilyfarmandmarket.com
For information or to register for the farm’s Farm to Table dinners, visittheloft5.blogspot.com.