Winter Garden Family Reinvents Historic Farm

U-Pick Hydroponic Farming Paves Way to Their Future

by Kirsten Harrington – 

“I vividly remember last January,” said John Bekemeyer, strolling through his family’s 20-acre farm on East Story Road in Winter Garden. “This was all dead orange trees. This was all mud in September. We didn’t even plant strawberries until October.”

The nearly century-old farm was originally started by John’s grandparents, George and Nancy Bekemeyer, in the 1920s. With the help of a mule and plow, the couple converted a field of pine trees and palmettos into a citrus farm and vegetable garden, harvesting the produce and selling it at the farmer’s market in downtown Orlando. After the historic working farm was ravaged by citrus greening disease in recent years, the Bekemeyer family was forced to come up with a new plan. The family, which includes four generations, decided to transform the dying citrus grove into a U-pick hydroponic strawberry and vegetable farm with a roadside produce stand.

021816foodieThe Bekemeyer family continues its farming tradition with a U-pick hydroponic strawberry and vegetable farm. 

The land had to be burned, cleared, contoured and replanted with 1,200 stackable columns, each holding five Styrofoam planters. Now, plump ripe strawberries tower above heavy pots of kale, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Rows of greenhouses are filled with lettuce, kohlrabi, onions and peppers. Most of the veggies are literally picked to order, and strawberries are available for U-pick or pre-pick at the farm’s roadside produce stand, which opened in December. Expansion plans are underway to add peaches, blueberries, blackberries and 1,200 orange trees.

It takes the entire Bekemeyer clan to keep things running, from planting seeds to handing out samples at the farm stand. For John, farming has been a part of his life since childhood.

“We all lived with Grandpa here on the farm. He grew vegetables as long as I can remember, and we were always doing something to help,” said Bekemeyer, who remembers being sent out to weed veggies when he was a child.

The U-pick strawberries are a big hit in the community, and the farm is gaining a local following for its freshly picked vegetables.

“We’ve also been talking with different restaurants, and there’s a lot of interest so far,” John said.

The farm has also been exploring the possibility of partnering with neighboring Westside Tech’s Culinary School.

“It’s a learning experience,” John said. “This has been more work than I anticipated, but it’s all good. It’s been rewarding. The whole farmstead interaction is enjoyable.”

Kohlrabi Parmesan Recipe

Kohlrabi is a member of the cabbage family and is sometimes called a German turnip. This sweet, crunchy vegetable can be enjoyed cooked or fresh in salads. John described the flavor as similar to coleslaw, and the Bekemeyers enjoy preparing the following recipe with kohlrabi freshly harvested from their farm.

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

4 small kohlrabies (about 1 pound), peeled and coarsely shredded (3 cups)

1 medium red or green sweet pepper, chopped (3/4 cup)

1 medium carrot, coarsely shredded (1/2 cup)

1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

2 teaspoons snipped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon cracked black pepper

Additional grated Parmesan or Romano cheese and fresh thyme for garnish

Directions:

In a large skillet, melt margarine or butter. Stir in shredded kohlrabi, chopped red or green sweet pepper, and shredded carrot. Cook and stir for 4 to 5 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender.

Stir in the 1/4 cup of Parmesan or Romano cheese, thyme, salt and pepper. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan or Romano cheese, if desired. Garnish with fresh thyme. Makes 4 servings.

The Bekemeyer Family Farm is open Friday from 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. For more information, call 407-917-8068.


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