Want to commune with the land (but not get your hands dirty)? You can now enjoy virtual tours of vibrant farms throughout Seminole County
From Seminole County’s suburban metropolis come stories of farmers who still rise at dawn to live off the land.
Farming and herding may not dominate Florida’s economy like they did back in the day, but places remain in Seminole County where cowboys are kings and locally grown oranges are washed in a contraption that dates back to the Eisenhower administration.
Thanks to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food And Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension Services office in Sanford, foodies and ag buffs can take a virtual tour of six farms across the county.
They will see why cows can eat things we can’t. Why freezes and storms are the last things citrus growers worry about today. And why local nurseries actually thrived during the COVID-19 crisis that brought other industries to their knees.
An occasional cameo by a farm cat sweetens the narrative.
Each video is charmingly introduced by Morgan Pinkerton, UF/IFAS extension agent, who specializes in sustainable agriculture.
“I really enjoy telling stories,” says Morgan. “My biggest role was to put the pieces together.”
Producers with Seminole County Government Television had a theme in mind for each farm, she says, but were not hesitant to let scenes unfold naturally.
UF/IFAS has conducted live, in-person farm tours for years to show residents how agriculture still plays a huge role in the county’s economy. Those tours were suspended last year because of the pandemic, but it just seemed inconceivable to the UF/IFAS team to go another year without them.
“The need is still there to teach people where their food comes from,” she says.
And so came the idea of producing virtual tours that can be enjoyed at the viewer’s convenience.
Orange Is the New Black
On the tours, we are introduced to some hardworking but laid-back people who make their living off the land.
Ed White, owner of the citrus-producing White’s Red Hill Groves in Sanford, exhibits a wry sense of humor as he responds to questions with terse answers.
Asked to describe a typical day, he says, “long.” Asked what drove him to this line of work, he replies, “the devil.”
But truthfully, his family has been farming in the area for generations. And Ed admits he would be lost without this job, where much of the day is spent in splendid sunshine with no boss to answer to but the consumer.
“I’m 62 years old,” Ed says. “I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s what I do.”
Ed grows oranges, lemons, and limes on his five-acre farm but also acts as a retailer, buying products from other farmers and reselling them.
In a particularly colorful segment, we see Red Hill Groves oranges being lovingly washed in a machine built in the late 1950s. Nothing fancy or high-tech, but it gets the job done.
Agriculture, particularly citrus farming, was the dominant industry in Central Florida until two freezes in 1894 and 1895, collectively known as the Great Freeze. The industry never fully recovered, and today tourists will come from as far away as the theme-park district for a chance to walk in an orange grove, Ed says.
Thanks to modern technology and irrigation systems, the chief threat to citrus farmers today isn’t the cold. It’s citrus greening, a bacterial disease that limits a citrus tree’s ability to take in nutrients.
East Meets West
In another tour, set at Yarborough Ranches in Oviedo, we visit a slice of the old West.
“It takes a lot of different things put together to make a ranch work,” explains Imogene Yarborough, the matriarch of a generations-old family enterprise. “And, of course, the cowboy in the saddle is the main part.”
J.K. Yarborough, also a UF/IFAS livestock agent, marvels how cows, with their ruminant digestive system, can break down foods like grass and even cardboard. What’s more, they graze on a landscape that would be pretty much useless for anything else.
During a tour of Pappy’s Patch in Oviedo, we see consumers come out to pick their own strawberries, eliminating all picking, refrigeration, and delivery costs for the farm, itself. It’s the perfect business model for Pappy’s and a great way for customers to experience produce that is literally farm fresh.
In another, fairly noisy tour, Dennis Langlois, known as Dennis the Bee Guy, explains how his bees are monogamous pollinators who stay loyal to one type of flower for life and carry pollen in little pockets on their legs. Dennis brings his brood of bees to other local farms to dramatically increase crop pollination.
Reconnecting with Nature
COVID-19 turned the economy upside down and, as such, it helped some businesses boom as consumers reshuffled their spending priorities. For example, South Seminole Farm & Nursery in Casselberry thrived as county residents rediscovered the pleasures of gardening and landscaping at home.
“We had the best year we ever had last year,” owner Jim Hunter reports during his virtual tour.
Each tightly edited video tour is no longer than five minutes but is packed with information and alluring images.
Rounding out the tours is a segment shot at BigDaddy’s farm in Oviedo, where some 80 vegetables are grown organically, meaning no artificial pesticides.
Rex Clonts, Jr., who runs the farm with his wife, Denise, praises the staffs at UF/IFAS and SGTV.
“Anyone that can make me look good, kudos to them,” he says with a typical dose of self-deprecation.
Farming in Rex’s family goes back two generations, and Rex himself was once involved in a 1,700-acre vegetable operation in Apopka.
Today, Rex works on a much more modest 10-acre farm. But he is still up at 5:15 in the morning and works till almost 7:00 p.m., dealing directly with consumers. He is 71 with no plans of retiring.
“We’re going to go on as long as the good Lord lets us,” he says. “When you enjoy what you’re doing, you don’t want to quit.”
To take the video tours for yourself, search the Web for UF/IFAS Virtual Farm Tours. You can also see the tours and much more on the UF/IFAS Extension Seminole County YouTube channel.
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