Southern Fresh Farms is Home Grown, Sustainable & Attainable!
“Southwest Florida historically has its roots in two areas: agriculture and tourism,” explains Robert “Bo” McMahon III in discussing the term “Agrotourism” in relation to his family’s Southern Fresh Farms.
Agriculture and Tourism: A Match Made in Heaven
“Lee County was originally agricultural and that was the basis for our economy for generations; then tourism became a second emphasis and no area does that better; agrotourism simply combines the two. We are more than just the beach! Southwest Florida entertains visitors from all around the world; why not teach them the agricultural history of Lee County while providing today’s healthy food options. Many locals even forget that farming first made Lee County, and that agriculture is our backbone.”
Agrotourism is Urban Farming 2.0
The growing field of agrotourism shares a prime component with real estate: “Location, Location, Location,” exclaims Bo. His family owns Southern Fresh Farm’s 5-acre site for 36 years. It rests right in the heart of 11,000 high value homes within a 5-square-mile area. “This is a prime market because of our proximity to the Daniels Parkway corridor; the largest and fastest growing segment of Lee County,” Bo says. “The surrounding neighborhoods provide great foot traffic and, because of Daniels, it seems we are within a 10-minute drive of everywhere. In some sense, Southern Fresh Farms is a community center point because all the surrounding development occurred in an inside-out fashion: we were here first, then came the homes.”
Location is Everything for Agriculture
Its location not only makes Southern Fresh Farms unique, but guarantees it will not have competition. “Our land was already zoned agricultural when adjacent properties became housing developments, so no one complained then or now. Today you cannot get a portion of land in the middle of a large neighborhood rezoned agricultural – no one would permit it.”
The McMahons are a farming family at heart, now in their fourth generation. Robert McMahon, Senior, first grew flowers in Southwest Florida in 1947, after meeting his wife here and relocating from Nebraska. His son, Robert, Junior, joined the business in 1977. The elder McMahon passed away in 1994, leaving the younger Robert and his wife Shelly to manage the farm. It was a tough time to make it as a small local independent farmer, so they ceased operation in 2000, moving into other endeavors such as environmental restoration, when Bo came on-board.
In 2012, Robert and Bo researched hydroponic and fish farming after learning about this relatively new and innovative agricultural trend. This rekindled their love of farming and gave birth to Southern Fresh Farms. Hydroponics is a proven method of utilizing smaller land space for a higher crop yield. Southern Fresh Farms uses a vertical system developed by Verti-Gro.
“Large tracts of land are rare, you need a bunch of equipment, and usually accumulate a huge debt while working from sunrise to sunset seven days a week at the mercy of the weather. This is not true, though, with our type of farm. It is much easier and affordable to invest in one versus 1,000 acres.”
Sustainability is Defined at Southern Fresh Farms
“Sustainability is a hot issue,” details Bo. “No one, however, seems to accurately define or be able to put their finger on one. At Southern Fresh Farms you see it and taste it and experience it. We grow more on a quarter-acre now than on 5 acres from our traditional farm. Our system is above-ground, so we did not incur flooding or damage during January’s record rainfall. We do not employ large-scale equipment nor burn a lot of fuel. We use less water because we grow row on top of row on top of row, resulting in incredible production rates. Our shipping footprint is practically nonexistent.”
Fresh Food is at the Heart of Sustainability in Southwest Florida
Robert agrees, saying that “nothing is as personal and important to our overall health as what we put in our bodies to eat. You should know what you are eating when you are eating it! When you buy food from local places like Southern Fresh Farms, once you get it home all you do is give it a good wash, then enjoy it guilt-free and without worry! Nothing is healthier or better for you than fresh grown merchandise. All the chemicals and preservatives you consume from store-bought items is worse than anything we can do in the growing process.”
He reinforces that “you cannot go to Publix or any other chain and purchase food from local farmers and that is a pure fact! They do not have fresh-cut lettuce, for example; it is all from somewhere else and shipped here. Southern Fresh Farms preserves the opportunity for our customers to buy fresh food rather than something grown in California. You meet and know us, see your produce grow, and can even pick it if you like! More people than ever want to know where their food is from, and want it as fresh as possible.”
Fresh Tilapia Farm is Knowing Where Your Food Comes From
Southern Fresh Farms offers no better example than its tilapia farm, applying the same concept that those who want to see where their food is grown feel the same about fish. They raise tilapia from fingerlings through on-site sale. The fish receive a special grain-based diet that promotes health and nutrition in them and, in return, to those who consume them. “This is literally the freshest fish in town,” Bo boasts! “We harvest and fillet them each morning, straight from the pool tank.” Everything on their delicious Fish Tacos, except the shell, is from Southern Fresh Farms, including the fish, lettuce, tomato, and salsa. “We are really proud of our Fish Tacos,” Bo says. “They are the tastiest and healthiest in the universe!”
Southern Fresh Farms is Sustainable Agrotourism in SWFL
Bo believes sites like Southern Fresh Farms are the future of the industry. ”From where are the next generation of farmers coming,” he rhetorically asks? “Large tracts of land are rare, you need a bunch of equipment, and usually accumulate a huge debt while working from sunrise to sunset seven days a week at the mercy of the weather. This is not true, though, with our type of farm. It is much easier and affordable to invest in one versus 1,000 acres.”
Just like a traditional farm, planting is in September with harvesting throughout the season. They check the crops carefully through harvest, and this requires a great deal of work and vigilance. “Nothing worthwhile is easy,” cautions Bo, “but this type of farming is attainable as well as sustainable to many people. Acquire one-quarter acre of land and – Congratulations – you are growing your own food!”
Snow Birds & Tourists Flock to Southern Fresh Farms
Robert’s wife Shelly best sums up the Southern Fresh Farms experience: “Southwest Florida draws hundreds of thousands of Snow Birds and tourists each year. Many of these look for family-friendly, safe, and if possible free places to visit, with free parking, to experience something unique, learn something new, and enjoy our beautiful weather. That is Southern Fresh Farms in a nutshell, and what makes us a superstar in tourism and agriculture. People are stunned when they visit! At our Farmer’s Market, I hear over-and-again that people enjoy Southern Fresh Farms so much because it feels like home, and that is from visitors from all over the world. There is no greater compliment!”
Shelly explains that the site is “family-friendly, built with young families in mind. Bring the kids, feed and pet the animals, enjoy the playground, and savor healthy food.” Robert concurs, saying “people are realizing the world revolves around agrotourism, but we need to do a better job of communicating this to our Snow Birds, tourists, locals, and in particular the senior population for the benefit of their long-term health. Southern Fresh Farms makes healthy eating affordable and attainable; after all, we are all in this together.”
“We grow more on a quarter-acre now than on 5 acres from our traditional farm. Our system is above-ground, so we did not incur flooding or damage during January’s record rainfall. We do not employ large-scale equipment nor burn a lot of fuel. We use less water because we grow row on top of row on top of row, resulting in incredible production rates. Our shipping footprint is practically nonexistent.”
“Grow Your Own Garden” & “Animal Day at The Farm” are Family Favorites at Southern Fresh
Southern Fresh Farms is constantly developing new programs and ideas so, as Bo philosophizes, “we never become ‘just that same old place!’” “Animal Day at The Farm,” for example, is Saturday, June 18, when its petting zoo teams with Cold Blooded Industries that brings in snakes, alligators, crocodiles, bobcats, skunks, a baboon, and more. “Animal Day at The Farm” is free, as is parking, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Another is the “Grow Your Own Garden” plot rental program, allowing those who love gardening or want to grow their own produce, to do so from $90 to $150 per season, depending on size.
Southern Fresh Farms is Innovative and Family Friendly
Despite these innovations and diversification, Bo concludes that “Southern Fresh Farms must be successful at our core, and that is farming. We host school groups, farm tours, birthday and holiday parties, Mommy Groups, weddings, baby showers, the Grand Opening Day and Animal Day, with October haunted and adult hayrides, and a multitude of other events. But we must be successful at farming first, and that remains our passion and prerogative.”
Southern Fresh Farms is open in-season daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beginning Sunday, June 19, through September 1, hours reduce to Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m.to 5 p.m. and Sundays Noon to 5 p.m. It is at 8500 Penzance Boulevard, Fort Myers, 33912, and you can contact them at 239-768-0309, [email protected], or see SouthernFresh.Farm.
Southern Fresh Farms, a delicious nutritious example of agrotourism and sustainability right in our own backyard!
Gary Mooney is a retired local government administrator and a contributing writer for SWFL Sustainability. He has a passion for covering health and sustainability and is a local expert on Zika Virus. You can learn more about Gary online at www.garymooney.net & www.zikavirus.guru and reach Gary at [email protected].