A family-owned U-pick strawberry and vegetable farm may soon become the county's next agro-tourism destination.
That's certainly the vision of Fern Hill Family Farms owners Jerry Hoffman and his wife, Becky.
"We want people to come out here and leave with the feeling, "When can we come back?" and "Who can we tell?" Jerry Hoffman said. "We want this to be a place they will bring their families, neighbors and friends."
The Hoffmans are building a 6,000-square-foot air-conditioned produce market on their 16.5-acre property off Gibsonton Drive on Fern Hill Road, just off Interstate 75 at exit 250.
Called Riverview's Big Red Barn, the market will feature hydroponically-grown strawberries and produce, including several varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, greens, kale, peppers and squash; Troyer deli meats and cheeses; 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; and supplementary produce from other area farmers. Hydroponic supplies and training will be available.
In the fall, the couple will add blueberries. Jerry Hoffman said he envisions having arts, crafts and music at the farm and a home and garden improvement center.
So far, customers are gushing.
"We used to go strawberry picking in Balm," said Jody North, of Riverview, as she watched her two grandchildren U-pick strawberries at Fern Hill. "This is so nice and convenient. I can't wait for the market to open."
Connie Whitacre of Brandon likes the place so much she brought along her daughter and grandchildren, currently visiting from Atlanta.
"This is my third visit here," she said. "The place is amazing, and the strawberries are the best ever."
The Hoffmans have been area residents for 40 years and own Verticon Inc., a general contracting business based in Valrico. They both grew up surrounded by crops in the Midwest farm belt but didn't develop an interest in farming until early last year, when Jerry Hoffman began studying farming methods. Shortly after, his wife joined him.
What attracted them to hydroponics was its environmentally friendly nature, which gives growers the ability to grow a large volume of plants in smaller places with less water. The plants are grown in elevated towers, exposing them to fewer pests and disease.
As people of deep faith, the couple are members to St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico. As such, they believe a cornerstone of their business is giving back to the community.
They've initiated a program where nonprofit organizations and churches can register for rebates on purchases made by members or supporters who supply an assigned account number or announce their affiliation. At the end of each quarter, Fern Hill will issue the nonprofit group a check for 10 percent of the profits made from those sales.
"We are very grateful to God for this opportunity, and we want to share with others what He has given us," Becky Hoffman said.
Riverview's Big Red Barn will open at Fern Hill Family Farms on March 16 and celebrate its grand opening with festive and fun activities for the entire family in early April. Business hours will be 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
For now, the U-pick operation is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, visit www.fernhillfamilyfarms.com.