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Stephanie Conforti of Estero checked in at the U-pick stand and grabbed some buckets. Accompanied by her children, Skye, 7, and Dante, 3, and her friend, Brittany Hunter, the group headed out into the fields with one thought — strawberries.

Unlike the grocery where the food is already boxed up for you, it takes a little bit of knowledge and experience to know which berries to pick and which to leave — experience a 3-year-old lacks. Dante picks up a rotten strawberry someone else dropped between the rows.

“No, that one’s not good,” his mother said.

Next, he picks a strawberry that is pale pink on one side and white on the other.

“No, you need to pick the red ones — bright red,” she said.

Then he tries to pick another unripe berry, which is tiny.

“No baby, that one’s little,” his mother said.

“I want big ones?” Dante asked.

“Oh, poor Dante,” Stephanie said. “I feel so bad because they want to do this every weekend, but we couldn’t with the rains we’ve had.”

Older sister Skye holds up a nice, ripe berry and asked, “What about this one?”

“No!” Dante squealed, reaching upward. “I want that one!”

“OK, but just let him put it in his bucket,” Stephanie said.

Hunter laughed, “What the 3-year-old wants, the 3-year-old gets, right Dante?”

“I got two strawberries,” Dante said, smiling as he rattled them in the bottom of his picking bucket.

Stephanie has been bringing her children to The Farm since the business opened at the corner of Corkscrew Road and Via Coconut Point in Estero.

“We U-pick because our children love it, and they get fresh air and pick strawberries,” she said. “We go home, clean them and put them into the refrigerator and they’re the best.”

Skye added, “I love coming here because I love strawberries, but especially when we get to pick strawberries here because it’s more fun than buying them at the grocery store.”

The Farm — back to our roots

The Farm is one of several small family run operations in the area that has worked on carving out a unique niche to connect personally with customers. Scott and Karen McDaniel have found their niche by operating a produce stand as well as running U-pick for strawberries and tomatoes.

“For young families, they get to bring their kids and it’s an event,” Karen said. “It’s a learning process because they get to see how the plants are done and stuff and that food isn’t just from the grocery store. We do a lot of school events and field trips here.”

The produce stand sells the strawberries, heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables they grow to customers who don’t care to pick their own. The Farm also offers a limited selection of prepared foods, such as homemade salsa, outstanding strawberry jam and fruit breads, as well as milkshakes spun up with a puree of their fresh strawberries.

“Our tomatoes taste like tomatoes should,” Karen said. They’re vine ripened all the way. People who don’t like tomatoes haven’t tasted a real tomato. They’ve only had the ones that were picked green and gassed. They’ll say, ‘I don’t like tomatoes, but I like yours.’”

The McDaniels and their business partners, Dustin and Stacie Blank, own the metal barn that serves as The Farm’s produce stand, but they don’t own the land on which it and all of their plants sit. The same proximity to fast-growing Estero that makes it handy for area residents to swing by and quickly purchase freshly picked produce also renders it vulnerable to the pressure of suburban development.

The McDaniels moved the produce stand to its current location after they lost their last leased location, at the corner of Three Oaks and Estero parkways, to development. Now a sign touting advance sale of condominiums casts a shadow upon the land they farm.

“The main thing is everybody saw those signs, and this has become home to a lot of them (causing anxiety),” Karen said. “It has not sold, and we’re hoping to still be here next year. If we’re not here, we’ll be somewhere else in the area because we want to be here for Estero. I don’t want our customers and community to think we’re bailing on them, because we’re not.”

The Farm operates on a Thanksgiving-to-Mother’s-Day schedule, so Scott said they will know before they close for the season in May if they’re lease has been renewed.

“The land owners have been very good to us and, if they come up with a better deal, that’s their prerogative and we’ll find another place,” he said. “I’m sure it’s just a matter of time because it’s a valuable place, but it will also change the character of the community so I think they’re moving slowly on it.”

Farmer Mike’s U-Pick

On the outskirts of Bonita Springs, Farmer Mike’s U-Pick has emerged from a period of uncertainty about the rented land on which it has operated for several years.

“The land is off the market, and Farmer Mike’s isn’t going anywhere,” said Mike Clevenger Jr., who joined his father in the family business.

While Farmer Mike’s has a well-stocked produce stand, Clevenger has been making moves to emphasize the U-pick aspect of the business as an agri-tourism experience to make the farm a destination. A lunch stand will be operational around the first of March.

Clevenger has expanded the activities for the annual Strawberry Festival scheduled for Sunday, March 6. In addition to the strawberry desserts and sack races of the past, this year’s festival will also feature a bluegrass band, 15 vendors, a hayride to the new five-acre sunflower garden, face painting and strawberry-picking contests for the kids.

“We’re keeping that theme of agri-tourism,” he said. “We did the corn maze in October, and it was a huge hit. We want people out on the farm doing stuff they’ve never done before. When was the last time you’ve come into a sunflower garden with 100,000 sunflowers in it? It’s a different experience. People can come out on the hayride, take pictures and harvest their own sunflowers.”

Walking through the farm stand at Farmer Mike’s, the produce seemed to join the theme of the place being an experience. The pungent aroma of onions mingled with the sweet scent of melons and strawberries, scenting the warm air in a way that doesn’t happen at the grocery. Clevenger said the new lunch stand will add a whole additional experience beyond just eating.

“You can come get our kale cesar with salmon, and all of the kale will be from here,” he said. “Our burger will have a fat slice of heirloom tomato on it and our Florida onion and romaine lettuce. We want it to be where people say, ‘Holy cow, they were short on tomatoes so they ran out and grabbed some that are just picked.’”

Circle C Farms sells eggs, meat

To raise livestock, you have to have more infrastructure than a horticultural farmer. Animals need shelter, watering troughs and more.

It’s the kind of operation that would be nearly impossible to pull off without owning the land. Circle C’s farm store in Bonita Springs offers the convenience of purchasing wholesome and humanely raised meat and eggs straight from the family of owner-operators.

Nicole Kozak, who owns and operates Circle C Farm with her family, owns not one but two farms, with the larger one located in Felda. They raise chickens, eggs and pork. Seasonally, they also offer their beef, lamb and turkey.

“We’re a year round pasture-to-plate farm,” Kozak said. “Our animals are grass-fed and pasture-raised with no corn or soy feed. The only grain they eat is the spent organic brewing grains from Fort Myers Brewing Company. We don’t use fertilizers or antibiotics at our farms.”

Kozak said Circle C doesn’t offer tours because poultry is very susceptible to picking up illnesses, so to keep their animals healthy without using antibiotics they must keep them isolated. However, you can see the laying hens in the distance scratching about outdoors when you visit the store at the smaller Bonita Springs farm.

“The reason we chose to open the farm store in Bonita is because it is centrally located for everyone to get to quickly,” she said. “That location offers the opportunity that normally wouldn’t happen because when you raise livestock, you need more space than you do for horticulture — you need grazing land. The neat thing about being agricultural in Bonita is that it’s unique. It provides the opportunity to come get the benefits of the local farm right there in the middle of everything.”

Kozak said some customers seem to get more than just high quality, tasty meats and eggs when they visit the farm store.

“People will come to get eggs, and they start talking about when they were little and grew up on a farm,” she said. “People like our genuineness, and they like the ability to talk about that farming connection because it reminds them of happy times.”

Connect with this writer: @LauraTichy Smith (Twitter)

If you go

The Farm

When: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily Nov.-May (closes 4 p.m. on Sundays)

Where: 9050 Corkscrew Road, Estero

Info: 768-2767; thefarm-estero.com

Suggested: Sunscreen, sun hat, insect repellant

Note: Call to check on U-pick conditions.

Farmer Mike's U-Pick

When: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday Oct.-May

Where: 26031 Morton Ave., Bonita Springs

Info: 498-4576; farmermikesupick.com; facebook.com/FarmerMikesUPick

Suggested: Sunscreen, sun hat, insect repellant

Note: Check Facebook page for Sunday, March 6 Strawberry Festival and U-Pick weather updates.

Circle C Farms

When: 8 a.m.-6 p.m. daily year-round

Where: 9294 Strike Lane, Bonita Springs

Info: 776-9054; circlecfarmfl.com

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