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Halloween highlights local produce

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image Honey is among the many locally produced items at Wolfe's Produce in Riverview. Mitch Traphagen Photo

This is the time of the year to reap the benefits of locally grown produce.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

RIVERVIEW — Inconspicuously located just off Shell Point Road in the middle of Ruskin is a farm of the future. On just a single acre of land, Hydro Harvest Farms is growing six acres worth of produce. In the store is healthy, fresh produce, along with locally made jams, honey and other delicious items.

It wasn’t all that inconspicuous last weekend, however, as cars lined up and a traffic jam formed when hundreds of costumed children and their parents attended the Hydro Harvest Farms Boo Fest. On the farm, kids wearing all manner of costumes were painting pumpkins and, in some cases, each other’s hair. In more than a few instances, the parents chipped in with the painting as well, while taking snapshots of their children as they truly enjoyed themselves on a beautiful autumn day.

In Riverview, just off the busy urban intersection of U.S. Highway 301 and Bloomingdale Avenue, there was an apparent anachronism to the racing traffic: hundreds of young people lined up for hayrides at Wolfe’s Produce Market. Rather than fight the traffic, the hay wagon wound through a course of trees decorated for Halloween on the market’s property. It was an amazing refuge from the fast pace just a hundred or so yards away on the highway.

Both Hydro Harvest Farms and Wolfe’s Produce provided the opportunity for people in South Hillsborough to discover the healthful and tasty benefits of locally grown produce on Halloween, a holiday normally associated with candy and the potential for tooth decay.

Only a few generations ago, nearly all of the food people ate was produced locally. As mass retailers gained in prominence, however, that changed. Despite the fact that South Hillsborough has long been known for growing tomatoes, the red fruit available in large area grocery stores is as likely to be from Mexico or Chile as it is from Ruskin. Despite having a treasure trove of seafood literally in the bay area’s backyard, the peeled shrimp on display in large area grocery stores may well be from Thailand rather than from the Gulf of Mexico.

Although the imported products frequently cost less, many people believe they carry a big price in being less flavorful and, in some cases, even less healthy. The growing volume of imported food has resulted in a corresponding growth in demand for locally grown food, a phenomena that began many years ago, but has only recently reached the point of garnering the attention of the mass retailers.

“We always buy as close as we can, as locally as we can,” said Jeff Wolfe, who owns Wolfe’s Produce along with his twin brother John. “What I mean by that is if watermelons are good and available from Plant City, I’ll get them from there. If it’s hot down here and watermelons are good in Tennessee, I’ll get them from there.”

Wolfe sells honey produced right here in South Hillsborough that is especially popular. “I’ve heard it’s good for allergies and people seem to love the taste,” he said.

Regarding the noticeable uptick in interest for buying food produced locally, Wolfe said, “Especially with the economy the way it is, people seem to be more conscious about buying local produce and keeping the money in our area. I buy from the local farmer and he gets his supplies from the local feed store. Local restaurants come to buy from me; I buy my lunch from them.”

For everyone, it is a win-win strategy. But for the customers, this is the time of the year to reap the benefits.

“Right now is a good time of year to be buying local produce, the season is generally October through May and all kinds of stuff is starting to come in,” Wolfe said. “Now that it’s getting colder up north and cooler down here, we’re seeing a lot of good produce. The flavor is so much sweeter.”

For the owners of produce markets, juggling the seasons and the timing of buying products is a time-consuming and time-sensitive activity, requiring an eye always fixed to the future.

“Before I bought my first pumpkin, the tree guy was calling,” Wolfe said with a laugh. “Keep an eye out for the strawberries coming available soon.”

Wolfe was married recently, but he has yet to find the time to take a honeymoon with his new bride. He’s hoping that maybe it will happen in the spring. Until then, the pumpkins are still selling, the strawberries are coming, and before long, the Christmas trees will be here.

“We’ll have Christmas trees the Friday after Thanksgiving,” he said. “We are getting some really nice trees.”

The market is also in the planning stages for some Christmas events on the property.

Both Hydro Harvest Farms and Wolfe’s Produce, along with many other smaller markets along the area roadsides, are locally-owned family businesses that sell, to the greatest degree possible, locally grown produce — just as it used to be. Some might say, just as it should be. While the population growth in Ruskin may have meant relinquishing the “Tomato Capitol” crown, it’s still hard to beat a Ruskin tomato in taste. In fact, it’s hard to beat anything locally grown. Fortunately, for South Hillsborough residents the best stuff for dinner is available just down the road.

For more information about Hydro Harvest Farms, visit www.hydroharvestfarms.com or call 813-645-6574. For more information about Wolfe’s Produce, call Jeff Wolfe at 813-927-2203. Better yet, visit them both at 1101 East Shell Point Road in Ruskin and 6005 U.S. Highway 301 South in Riverview, respectively.

Hydro Harvest offers free tours of their unique facility and even offers opportunities for teachers and students interested in learning to “garden off the ground.”  They also offer “you-pick” vegetables — you can’t get any fresher than that.
For those in the Sun City Center area, Wolfe’s Produce comes to you during a farmer’s market the first Wednesday of each month at Kings Point.

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