By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Millions of strawberries will be ripe for a public picking Feb. 22 at the 13th annual Hillsborough County 4-H Foundation Strawberry U-pick at Fancy Farms in Plant City.
Rain or shine, 4-H volunteers also will be there to pick berries for area food banks and to help people unable to pick for themselves, due to age or disability.
“This is the peak season for strawberries,” said Betty Jo Tompkins, past president of the Hillsborough County 4-H Foundation and executive director of the Hillsborough Soil and Water Conservation District. “We typically pick berries the last weekend of the Florida Strawberry Festival. This year we’re picking them five days before the festival starts, which means they’ll be even that more luscious and huge.”
The 85th Florida Strawberry Festival is set to run Feb. 27 through March 8 in Plant City, also known as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.”
Michelle Dunn gives high marks to the annual U-pick and its mission to bring fresh fruit to food banks and to raise funds to support 4-H programs. She volunteers to lead the South Shore 4-H Club, a specialty club open to youth countywide, focused on raising and showing dairy cows.
According to Tompkins, event proceeds help fund scholarships for 4-H Summer Camp, 4-H University and 4-H Legislature, among other offerings, such as the Southeast Dairy Youth Retreat. Funds also support the 4-H program overall and allow for club members and their families to attend the annual August banquet for free.
“The U-pick is great,” said Dunn, a former 4-H club member herself. “It helps the local community and our scholarship program and [the Fancy Farms owners] are just some of the nicest people around. What they do is greatly appreciated.”
Carl Grooms and his wife, Dee Dee, started Fancy Farms in 1974 with 15 acres of strawberries. The family operation today, managed by their son, Dustin Grooms, encompasses 250 acres.
The Grooms family is a past recipient of the Farm Family of the Year Harvest Award, presented by the Hillsborough County Fair. The award aims to preserve the agricultural heritage of Hillsborough County and to celebrate outstanding pioneers in the farming community.
This year’s Fancy Farms U-pick is set to run 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 22, with berries costing $2 per 2-quart clamshell container. Pre-picked strawberries cost $3 per container and are available to drive-through customers as well. Delivery is available for commercial orders of more than 50 quarts.
“Literally, there are millions of berries in the field to pick,” Tompkins said. “You can pick until you’re blue in the face and never run out, and that’s after we give more than a ton of strawberries to food banks. The 4-H volunteers pick them, and we ask the public, after they pick for themselves, on the honor system, to pick strawberries for food banks as well.”
Another plus is the awareness the U-pick brings to 4-H clubs overall.
Brandi Yancy, a 4-H youth development agent, works out of the Hillsborough County Extension Service, in partnership with the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), in Seffner, at 5339 County Road 579.
According to Yancy, community clubs number 19 in the county, including 11 in the east and southeast county area, and [there is] a push to establish them as well in local schools.
“Everybody knows 4-H started for agriculture, but it’s more than that,” Yancy said. “It’s designed for youth ages 5 to 18, and it gives them an opportunity to learn more about things they’re passionate about and to learn through their projects the skills they need to be successful in life.”
Dunn’s club meets one Sunday a month at various locations (Call: 813-323-2580). The Chautaugqua 4-H Club in Riverview, led by Karen Hamilton, covers numerous interests and meets the first and third Tuesdays at Riverview High School (Call: 813-267-3012).
Also nearby is the Horses, Inc. 4-H Club in Brandon, whose interests include STEM education, gardening, cooking, archery, dairy cows and horses. The club meets the second and fourth Tuesdays at Rotary Camp Florida, 1915 Camp Florida Road (Call: 813-294-3625).
The Hillsborough 4-H County Council meets at UF/IFAS Hillsborough County Extension in Seffner and is project-focused on leadership and citizenship (Call: 813-744-5519).
The On Target 4-H Club meets at the Hillsborough County Fairgrounds in Dover and focuses on livestock and shooting sports (archery, rifle and shotgun). The club meets Sundays, 3 to 5 p.m. (Email: 4Hontargetshootingsports@gmail.com).
Also a growing presence in area schools, there are 4-H clubs at Advantage Academy (Plant City), Independence Academy (Dover) and Florida College Academy (Temple Terrace). Meanwhile, at Boyette Springs Elementary School in Riverview, the 4-H club focuses on robotics and photography.
For more about 4-H clubs, call Yancy at 813-744-5519, Ext. 54116. Fancy Farms is at 3838 Fancy Farms Road, Plant City. Call 813-478-3486 or visit: www.fancyfarms.com.