Beginner gardening books would have you believe that growing something involves little more than putting a seed in a piece of appropriate earth and giving it food and water. But as any 8-year-old who has ever emptied a packet of carrot seeds will tell you, there is a great deal more to it than that. Move the undertaking up to even a small-scale commercial level, and you have a marvel of complexity.
I was reminded of all this in a golf cart ride around King Family Farm, a 104-acre spread in Bradenton. This family operation grows a dazzling variety of produce with the idea of selling it fresh, as in on the day it is picked. The lettuce you buy on Tuesday is picked on Tuesday. (If it doesn’t sell, the price is reduced on Wednesday.) It is an agricultural tour de force to grow dozens of varieties of dozens of species to ripen and harvest the right amount on a daily basis. And in these days of ethylene-ripened, long-distance-shipped red rocks claiming to be tomatoes, it is a real treat to eat an heirloom variety picked just hours ago.
At the King Family Farm market, cards displayed with the produce tell you how often it is picked, and the farm stand prices will come as a pleasant surprise. No lettuce is more than $2 a head, including beautifully grown red leaf lettuce, Little Gem romaine and an irresistible maroon baby crisp head cultivar called Rhazes. Arugula is $2 a bunch (probably not for much longer — it is getting too warm). Italian and Japanese eggplant are $1.75 per pound. Broccoli is $3; and cauliflower is $3.50 (white and purple). The lime green Italian Romanesco broccoli will start cropping soon. The stand sells mustard greens, various kinds of kale, collards and beautiful, baby rainbow chard.
My guide for this tour is Shelby King, who tells me, “Everybody wants ‘baby,’” while taking a phone order from a local chef who wants tender young beet greens. She headed to the fields to find them as I was leaving.
The King Family Farm uses sustainable agricultural practices, but it is not organic. This comes not from lack of belief in organic growing practices, which are enthusiastically practiced, but from distaste for the associated politics and, frankly, costs — to the grower and to customers. For many crops, including some two-dozen heirloom tomato varieties, the farm even saves its own seeds.
The heirloom tomatoes are a specialty (you can buy an assortment at Morton’s). Another is peaches; the Kings grow two freestone types and two clingstones. The fruits have just been pruned to eight inches to 10 inches apart for size, and the Kings expect to start harvesting as early as the end of March. They also grow 20 acres of blueberries at a separate location in Myakka City.
This is a place of constant learning and experimentation. Ben King (Shelby King’s husband) is in charge. At the moment, he is doing a trial of lettuce growing on “salad tables” raised about 2.5 feet off the ground. The results are fewer bugs, less tip burn and a cleaner head of lettuce, which is a big plus for restaurant chefs. The farm supplies several directly, including Sonia Diner, Ortesia and Sweet Eats in Bradenton; Tommy Klauber’s Polo Grill in Lakewood Ranch; and Station 400 in Sarasota.
The Kings have about a third of their Bradenton acreage under cultivation. Much of the rest is occupied by the homesteads of various family members. The Kings have three children: Lily, 12; Jeb, 10, and Reid, 8. Altogether, there are nine cousins of that generation living on the property.
King Family Farms is located on Caruso Road (60th Street East) off of State Road 60, just west of I-275 in Bradenton. It is less than 20 minutes from downtown Sarasota. Its season typically runs from the third week in October to the second week in June, and the farm market is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
The Kings keep bees and sell honey. Their market sells potatoes from Jones Potato Farm, dairy from a farm in Myakka, bread from Bavarian Bread Co. in Sarasota and strawberries from O’Brien Family Farms. On the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, there is a mini festival featuring pulled pork and other ’cue, the food products of other local artisans and growers (fresh, of course) and music.
Everything seems to grow well at the King Family Farm. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a rare fox squirrel with a big bushy tail.
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