Fresh finds - South Lee packed with locally-grown fruits, veggies

Mehmet Cingoz, owner of Memett's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable, farms 10 acres behind his produce stand off of U.S. 41 in Estero, where he has more than 6,500 tomato plants, as well as zucchini, yellow squash and cantaloupe.

Laura Gates

Mehmet Cingoz, owner of Memett's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable, farms 10 acres behind his produce stand off of U.S. 41 in Estero, where he has more than 6,500 tomato plants, as well as zucchini, yellow squash and cantaloupe.

Max Gonzalez recently opened his local produce market next to the Mexican Retaurant in San Carlos. Gonzalez grows much of his own produce on a farm in Immokalee.

Laura Gates

Max Gonzalez recently opened his local produce market next to the Mexican Retaurant in San Carlos. Gonzalez grows much of his own produce on a farm in Immokalee.

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Laura Gates

Emily Clark makes a habit of picking out fresh produce from the famers market at Riverside Park every Wednesday morning. For the Bonita Springs resident, her motivation is twofold.

“It’s much cheaper, and you’re supporting your neighbors here,” Clark said as she eyed some fresh green beans and tomatoes from Adam’s Fresh Produce.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, top reasons for buying local produce include supporting the local community, getting fresher food and saving on shipping expenses, which reduces fuel emissions. In short, buying local is good for the local economy, good for the environment and good for the individual consumer.

Luckily, south Lee County has no shortage of fresh produce stands. The newest is First Fruits, which opened just weeks ago at 19690 Cypress View Drive, off of Estero Parkway. Like most produce stands, First Fruits features 100 percent locally grown produce.

“About 85 percent of the stuff here, we grow ourselves,” said co-owner Scott McDaniel, who manages the retail stand. His counterpart, Dustin Blank, is the farmer and “green thumb” of the operation. Blank farms several acres off of East Corkscrew Road.

First Fruits hopes to set itself apart from other produce stands when it opens Estero’s only U-Pick for strawberries and tomatoes in January.

“We take pride in what we grow,” said McDaniel, noting the operation’s 20,000 strawberry plants and 7,000 tomato plants. “The centerpiece is our strawberries and tomatoes.”

Mehmet Cingoz has been growing and selling produce in Estero since 1985, when he opened Memett’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetables at 20921 Tamiami Trail (changing the spelling of his Turkish first name to make it easier for Americans to pronounce).

Cingoz grows his own tomatoes, zucchini, squash and cantaloupe on the 10 acres he leases near the produce stand. The rest of the fruit and vegetables come from within a 20-mile radius, he said. Memett’s also sells citrus fruit from Arcadia, as well as local honey. “Everything is local,” Cingoz said.

The recent frost had Cingoz and other local farmers a bit worried. When arctic blasts hit last winter, many were forced to import produce from Mexico and Central America.

This year, however, Cingoz says local farmers are better prepared. “Most of the farmers are getting used to the freeze, and they know exactly what they need to do to save their crops,” he said.

First Fruits uses a specially formulated spray to help its plants survive subfreezing temperatures. “It uses the plant’s natural chemistry to make it hold more water to keep it from freezing at 32 degrees,” McDaniel explained.

No matter the weather, local farmers are undaunted in their mission to offer high quality, locally grown fruits and vegetables.

“When you’re running a farming business, you’ve got to come out whether it’s cold or raining,” said Anna Waite, who owns Fort Myers-based Sunrise Citrus with her husband, Bob.

Waite has been selling her locally grown citrus fruit for 34 years and can be found at the Bonita Springs Farmer’s Market every Wednesday. “We’re actually one of the last citrus farmers in Lee County,” she proudly stated.

Much of the produce available at local farmers markets is grown in the Immokalee area. Adam Rodriguez, known as “Produce Adam” to many Bonita residents, has been selling locally grown fruits and vegetables for 20 years.

Along with his daily produce stand at the Bonita Springs Lion’s Club, he also sends produce to most of the local farmers markets, including Riverside Park, Coconut Point, North Naples and The Promenade.

The market at Riverside Park is open from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays. The Promenade’s market is on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. Coconut Point’s market happens every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Other full-time produce stands in the area include Dolly’s Produce Patch and Eatery at 9930 Bonita Beach Road, Farmer Mike’s at 26049 Morton Avenue, and Gonzalez Fruit and Vegetables at 19630 Tamiami Trail in San Carlos.

Dolly’s and Farmer Mike’s are fixtures in Bonita Springs, while Max and Elizabeth Gonzalez just opened their produce stand this month. All of Gonzalez’s produce comes from farms in Immokalee, where his family grows cucumbers, peppers, tomatillos and tomatoes.

Local farmers currently have plenty to offer. While they are still assessing damage from the freeze, most expect their crops to survive. As the sunlight hours lengthen in January, locals should expect ample selection at area produce stands.

“The plants should start kicking off more fruit after December 22nd when the days get longer,” said McDaniel. Fresh strawberries and tomatoes should be ready for self-serve harvesting in early January.

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