Wander the groves like the days of yore. (Courtesy Wikicommons)
Dotted among Central Florida's residential areas that boomed with the influx of tourists are farm stands inviting travelers to pick ripe blueberries from the bushes or explore a citrus grove. Though the farms may not occupy as much land as they once did and often skirt suburban roads, once you reach your destination, it can feel like walking through a time machine. Dirt roads? We have them. Between the rows of groves, the pale orange dirt makes for a beautiful contrast between the waxy green foliage of citrus trees and the bright blue sky above.
The best way to enjoy these rural places is to sample their bounty.
“Florida was an agricultural state long before Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter,” says Pam Brandon, co-author of the nationally acclaimed book about local Florida food culture, Farm to Feast, and managing editor of Edible Orlando magazine. “Plenty of farms are just off the freeway minutes from the theme parks: Plant City strawberries, Zellwood sweet corn, Yalaha blueberries—from September to June there’s something in season, and it’s a really fun new vacation experience, especially for families, to explore beyond the beaches and theme parks.”
Produce is, of course, seasonal, so depending upon what time of year you’re visiting, there will be different types of edibles to pick or buy from roadside stands. It’s essential to check when each place is open, since times and days often vary. Using the old-fashioned telephone is the best way to make sure you’ll arrive to an open gate as farms’ websites aren’t always up to date, especially during the summer. Most of the berry patches and groves are about a half-hour away from the parks; so make it a day with the other natural attractions nearby.
Exploring in Fall & Winter: Citrus produce and wildlife
Late fall and winter months are prime time for that famous Florida citrus. One of the easiest places to get your fix that’s close to Disney World is the Showcase of Citrus. Grab a bag and head to the grove to fill it up. Parts of the fun are a small petting farm, a monster truck ride through the groves and a country store where you can get a frozen orange juice slushy mixed with vanilla ice cream. To make it a day, nearby Lake Louisa State Park, is home to a natural, undeveloped lake where you can rent a canoe and get a feel for Florida’s wildlife.
Long & Scott Farms, is the only remaining Zellwood sweet corn farm in an area once known solely for the crop. Visitors peruse the farm stand or dine at the small restaurant and take the kids to the corn maze in late September through November. The sweet corn, called Scott’s Zellwood Triple-Sweet Gourmet Corn, is grown without pesticides and can be found on menus at Orlando-area restaurants offering farm-to-table menus.
Wanderings in Winter & Spring: Berry season
This is the season for amazing berries that are famous throughout the country, most of them coming from Central Florida. Strawberries and blueberries are in abundance and so much fun for adults and kids alike to pick them right off the plant and into their mouths.
Yalaha Bakery & Blue Bayou Blueberry U-Pick—One of the largest you-picks in the Central Florida region is open May through July with a farm stand offering produce from around the region. But the best time is in May when the organic blueberry bushes are full and ready to be picked. Don’t be surprised if you leave with a bucket full. After all that gathering, head into the farm’s famous Yalaha Bakery filled with berry pies baked on-site and other German and Amish sweets.
Strawberry patches are fairly easy to find in Central Florida for you-pick, such as Oak Haven Farms. The neat rows of plants make finding berries easy, and you’ll find a playground and zip line for the kids and a country store selling strawberry wine. But for the big daddy of all strawberry fields, you’ll have to head west from the parks to Plant City. The place is so famous for its berries, it holds a Strawberry Festival (Feb. 26-March 8, 2015) every year. Check out Parkesdale Farm Market, for luscious strawberry shakes and strawberry short cake from January to mid-April.
Discoveries in the Summer: Bike paths and fruits
Summer in Central Florida is the equivalent of winter up north in terms of what’s fresh—that is, not much. The heat and humidity send roots into retreat. But, if you’re here in June, you’re in luck for picking blackberries. A small patch called H&H Berry Farm (15217 CR 455, Montverde, 800.716.4740), lets you wander down several rows of thornless blackberry bushes full of dark, juicy berries the size of a quarter. To extend the excursion, head south to West Orange Trail where you can rent bikes and explore 22 miles of bike path. If you’re here July through September, road stands offer fresh watermelon and cantaloupe, and in downtown Orlando’s Asian district along Mills and Colonial avenues, markets sell tropical fruits like lychee, papaya and fresh herbs grown locally.