RIVERVIEW - Folks interested in freshly grown produce, specialty products and old-fashioned customer service will be glad to hear the Big Red Barn at Fern Hill Family Farms is finally open.
After six months of construction, owners Jerry and Becky Hoffman opened its doors on May 3 in celebration of their soft opening. Hundreds of well-wishers turned out.
"It's been so exciting," Becky Hoffman said. "The reception by the community has been tremendous, and not everyone knows about us yet.
"We look forward to learning what our customers want and what sells," she continued. "Based on feedback we've already received, we'll be looking at gluten-free, sugar-free and organic products."
The Hoffmans built the 6,000-square-foot, fully air-conditioned market on the 16.5 acres they own off Gibsonton Drive and Fern Hill Road, off Interstate 75 at exit 250. Long anticipated by locals watching it go up, the Big Red Barn features hydroponically-grown strawberries and produce grown on site, including several varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, greens, kale, eggplant, peppers, squash, cucumbers and pickling cucumbers; supplementary produce from other area farmers; Troyer nitrate-free deli meats and 30 varieties of cheese; Amish Wedding-brand canned and jarred jellies, jams, noodles, fudge and candies; old-fashioned, homemade, hard ice creams; custom deli sandwiches; pizza; fresh baked pies; herbs; fresh juices, salsas, relishes, pickles and more.
Customers seem pleased with the selection.
"This is my first time here and I really like what I see," said Janelle McRoberts of Riverview. "I recently moved from Colorado where I was used to buying everything fresh and knowing the food was locally grown. That's very important to me."
As she spoke her 5-year-old daughter, Ivy, declined some cheese samples offered by Michael Melanson, a friend of the Hoffmans helping out at the store. Undeterred, Melanson then offered watermelon and the child bit.
Xenia Jette, also of Riverview, shares McRoberts' views. Towing along her son William, 10, she headed for the U-pick fields behind the store.
"I wanted to get him out from behind the TV," she said. "When I first mentioned coming he wanted to stay home but now he's having fun collecting vegetables for me.
"I want him to where food comes from, and this is a great way for us to spend some quality time together," she said.
So far the deli has proven to be a hot seller, Becky Hoffman said. "Our jams and jellies are doing well and believe it or not a product called Yoder's Good Health Recipe tonic."
The market has unusual items generally not found at local grocers or roadside stands.
For example, in addition to yellow and white popcorn, it carries Troyer-brand red, blue and purple varieties and a mix of them all. The deli offers selections like sweet bologna, Dutch loaf, kettle-fried chicken breast, cheese curds, green onion cheese and yogurt cheese. Shoppers will also find Black Buggy ready-to-heat soups, homemade pickled baby beets, sweet potato butter and lemon marmalade jam.
The Hoffmans have been area residents for 40 years and own Verticon Inc., a general contracting business based in Valrico. They grew up in the Midwest farm belt but never actually farmed until recently. Early last year when they decided to pursue building the market, Jerry Hoffman began studying farming methods and his wife joined him shortly after.
They chose hydroponics, which allow farmers to grow a large volume of plants on smaller sites using less water. The plants are grown in elevated towers, exposing them to fewer pests and disease.
The Hoffmans know its important to give back.
Members to St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, they believe a cornerstone of the business is sharing prosperity with the community. They created a program for nonprofit organizations and churches to register for rebates on purchases made by members and supporters who supply an assigned account number or announce their affiliation. At the end of each quarter, Fern Hill Family Farms will issue those groups a check for 10 percent of the profits made from those sales.
Riverview's Big Red Barn is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Its grand opening will be sometime around June 1, after the Hoffmans get a chance to work out any kinks.
For information on the upcoming grand opening or the market itself, visit www.fernhillfamilyfarms.com.