Home Grown!

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Southern Fresh Farms

 “Southwest Florida historically has its roots in two areas: agriculture and tourism,” explains Robert “Bo” McMahon III in discussing the term “Agrotourism” in relation to his family’s Southern Fresh Farms. “Lee County was originally agricultural and that was the basis for our economy for generations; then tourism became a second emphasis and no area does that better; agrotourism simply combines the two. Many locals even forget that farming first made Lee County, and that agriculture is our backbone.”

The growing field of agrotourism shares a prime component with real estate: “Location, Location, Location,” exclaims Bo. His family has owned Southern Fresh Farm’s 5-acre site for 36 years. Located just north of Daniels Parkway, east of I-75 in South Fort Myers, It rests right in the heart of roughly 11,000 high value homes within a 5-square-mile area. “This is a prime market because of our proximity to the Daniels Parkway corridor; the largest and fastest growing segment of Lee County,” Bo says. “The surrounding neighborhoods provide great foot traffic and, because of Daniels, it seems we are just a 10-minute ride from anywhere.”

The McMahons are a farm family at heart, now in their fourth generation. Robert McMahon, Senior, first grew flowers in Southwest Florida in 1947, after meeting his wife here and relocating from Nebraska. His son, Robert, Junior, joined the business in 1977. The elder McMahon passed away in 1994, leaving the younger Robert and his wife Shelly to manage the farm. It was a tough time to make it as a small local independent farmer, so they ceased operation in 2000, moving into other endeavors such as environmental restoration, when Bo came on-board.

In 2012, Robert and Bo researched hydroponic and fish farming after learning about this relatively new and innovative agricultural trend. This rekindled their love of farming and gave birth to Southern Fresh Farms. Hydroponics is a proven method of utilizing smaller land space for a higher crop yield. Southern Fresh Farms uses a vertical system developed by Verti-Gro.

Sustainable & Attainable

“Sustainability is a hot issue,” details Bo. “No one, however, seems to accurately define or put their finger on it. At Southern Fresh Farms you see it and taste it and experience it. We grow more on a quarter-acre now than on 5 acres from our traditional farm. Our system is above-ground, so we did not incur flooding or damage during January’s record rainfall. We do not employ large-scale equipment nor burn a lot of fuel. We use less water because we grow row on top of row on top of row, resulting in incredible production rates. Our shipping footprint is practically nonexistent.”

Robert agrees, saying, “Nothing is as personal and important to our overall health as what we put in our bodies to eat. You should know what you are eating when you are eating it! When you buy food from local places like Southern Fresh Farms, give it a good wash, then enjoy it guilt-free and without worry! Nothing is healthier or better than fresh grown merchandise.”

Strawberries grown vertically.
Strawberries grown vertically.

He reinforces that “you cannot go to Publix or any other chain and purchase food from local farmers and that is a pure fact! They do not have fresh-cut lettuce, for example; it is all from somewhere else and shipped here. Southern Fresh Farms preserves the opportunity for our customers to buy fresh food rather than something from California. You meet and know us, see your produce grow, and can even pick it if you like! More people than ever want to know where their food is from, and want it as fresh as possible.”

Southern Fresh Farms offers no better example than its tilapia farm, raising them from fingerlings through on-site sale. The fish receive a special grain-based diet that promotes health and nutrition in them and, in return, to those who consume them. “This is literally the freshest fish in town,” Bo boasts! “We harvest and fillet them each morning.” Everything on their delicious Fish Tacos, except the shell, is from Southern Fresh Farms, including the fish, lettuce, tomato and salsa. “We are really proud of our Fish Tacos,” Bo says. “They are the tastiest and healthiest in the universe!”

Bo believes sites like Southern Fresh Farms are the future of the industry. ”From where are the next generation of farmers coming,” he rhetorically asks? “Large tracts of land are rare, you need a bunch of equipment, and usually accumulate a huge debt while working from sunrise to sunset seven days a week at the mercy of the weather. This type of farming is attainable as well as sustainable to many people. Acquire one-quarter acre of land and – congratulations – you are growing your own food!”

Southern Fresh Farms
The McMahon’s are the family farmers behind Southern Fresh Farms of Lee County. Shelly, Robert Jr. & Bo McMahon shown center.

There’s No Place Like Home

Robert’s wife Shelly best sums up the Southern Fresh Farms experience: “Southwest Florida draws hundreds of thousands of snowbirds and tourists each year. Many of these look for family-friendly, safe, and if possible free places to visit, with free parking, to experience something unique, learn something new, and enjoy our beautiful weather. That is Southern Fresh Farms in a nutshell, and what makes us a superstar in tourism and agriculture. People are stunned when they visit! At our Farmer’s Market, I hear over-and-again that our guests enjoy Southern Fresh Farms so much because it feels like home, and that is from visitors from all over the world. There is no greater compliment!”

Shelly explains that the site is “family-friendly, built with young families in mind. Bring the kids, feed and pet the animals, enjoy the playground, and savor healthy food.” Robert concurs, saying, “People are realizing the world revolves around agrotourism, but we need to do a better job of communicating this to our snowbirds, tourists, locals and in particular, the senior population for the benefit of their long-term health. Southern Fresh Farms makes healthy eating affordable and attainable; after all, we are all in this together.”

Southern Fresh Farms is constantly developing new programs and ideas so, as Bo philosophizes, “we never become ‘just that same old place!’” “Animal Day at The Farm,” for example, is Saturday, June 18, when its petting zoo teams with Cold Blooded Industries that brings in snakes, alligators, crocodiles, bobcats, skunks, a baboon, and more. “Animal Day at The Farm” is free, as is parking, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Despite these innovations and diversifications, Bo concludes, “Southern Fresh Farms must be successful at our core, and that is farming. We host school groups, farm tours, birthday and holiday parties, Mommy Groups, weddings and graduations, baby showers, the Grand Opening Day and Animal Day, with October haunted and adult hayrides, and a multitude of other events. But we must succeed at farming first, and that remains our passion and prerogative.”

Southern Fresh Farms is open in-season daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beginning Sunday, June 19, through September 1, hours reduce to Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m.to 5 p.m. and Sundays Noon to 5 p.m. The farm is located at 8500 Penzance Boulevard, Fort Myers, 33912, and you can contact them at 239-768-0309, info@southernfreshfarms.com, or see www.southernfresh.farm.

Southern Fresh Farms, a delicious nutritious example of agrotourism and sustainability right in the heart of Lee County!

Gary Mooney

Photos by Gary Mooney