Features

From farm to table

Written by Leigh Neely

The personal touch at Bountiful Farms makes a difference for customers.

Story: Leigh Neely

Bountiful Farms in Okahumpka is a place where you can buy organic farm vegetables, honey on tap, and tinctures made with the pure, organic items. In addition to these items, there are handmade skin creams, salves, and soap made from goat milk in cooler seasons.

Bountiful Farms owners Jessica and Gareth Gentry were chefs before they decided they wanted to grow safe, healthy food and help people understand how food can be the medication a body needs for wholesome healing.

Plantation resident Fran Gawlinski visits the store weekly for fresh vegetables, herbs, and eggs. “I love this place,” Fran says. “It’s organic, it’s fresh, and you can’t do any better than what I get here, and I’m less than a mile from home.”

The farm in Okahumpka belonged to Gareth’s grandfather, and the family now lives in his former home. The couple, along with Jessica’s sister, Ginny Feathers, and employee Chad Cook are working year-round to keep local community-supported agriculture members, residents, and restaurants in fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs. “Our concept is everybody wants really good, homegrown, home-cooked food,” Jessica says.

Farming is personal to Gareth and Jessica. A van pulls into the parking lot, and Gareth immediately heads over to help the customer. Knowing the woman was one of their cancer customers who would need help getting out of the van, he helped her into the store.

“Customer service is our number one thing here,” Jessica says. “We bring customers here, have them sit down if they need to, and I go around and get what they want. Sometimes I go gather it, bring it in, and wash it for them to take home.”

Helping people suffering from cancer is one of the pillars of the farm.

“They come to us and tell us what’s wrong, and we grow foods especially for them,” Jessica says. “We get close to them and know them by name. Customers will call me to let me know they can’t come in because they’re sick or whatever. They know I’ll miss them.”

The farm constantly produces from September until June. July and August are the months when they till and replenish the land to begin growing again. While digging and tilling around the farm, Jessica says they have found arrowheads, pots, kettles, a saber-tooth tiger tooth, a Mako shark tooth, and pieces of railroad material. And, of course, after the digging comes the planting. “We have over 15,000 seedlings in the greenhouses ready to go at any time,” Jessica says.

Jessica Gentry by Fred Lopez

“We grow over 120 varieties of produce, so when our varieties start coming in, we’ll have anywhere from 30 to 50 types of foods to choose from here on any given day. We do it on the square-foot gardening technique, so every square foot is taken up with food. There’s very little space to walk and no room for tractors. We pull weeds and we use a scrapper hoe.”

Everything on the farm is done by hand. All seeds are planted by hand, transplanted by hand, and taken care of by hand. There are no pesticides.

“Our security is in succession planting,” Jessica says. “If one crop is going down, it’s OK. We’ll do our best to hand-control pests and things like that, but if it’s going down, we let it go. We’ve got another one behind it.”

The one thing the two farmers do is bring in beneficial insects such as lady bugs and praying mantis. “We bring in 30,000 to 50,000 lady bugs a year, and they help take care of anything that’s in a nymph stage, anything in a pupal stage by eating them,” she says.

The praying mantis eat the adult bugs—beetles, caterpillars, and pests like that.

There’s also a lot of history attached to what the farmers do. Bountiful Farms grows Cherokee purple tomatoes, which are one of the oldest varieties in history.

“The Cherokee Indians grew those, and they’re a reddish, purplish color. We also have heirloom Brandywine and cherry tomatoes, and bell peppers, and we added Roma tomatoes to accommodate restaurant orders,” Jessica says. These Cherokee purple tomatoes grow well in humidity because they’re originally from the Tennessee River Valley, a very humid area according to National Public Radio’s “The Salt,” a blog which researches food history and culture.

In addition to the vegetables, the Gentrys grow blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries, depending on the season. “It’s all weather permitting. We planned on growing through the past summer, but everything just drowned in June,” Jessica says. “There was just too much rain.”

Bountiful Farms also has 300 “spoiled rotten” chickens. They eat well from the garden leftovers and are given an organic layer mash. Fresh eggs are available in the store every day.

“We have a 3,000-square-foot chicken coop for them that we built two years ago,” Jessica says. “We used to have them free-range around the farm, but we kept losing them to predators. We had to build a giant squirrel cage around their laying place just to keep them safe.”

The hawks discovered the chickens, and then a coyote pack ran through the brood. There obviously was a need for protection so now the chickens have plenty of safe “free range” space.

The big project at the farm now is the planning and work for an on-site restaurant with courtyard dining and literally farm-to-table food served fresh daily. The restaurant will be located under a centuries-old oak tree that offers a wide circle of shade where diners can enjoy their meals. Roots of the massive tree will be exposed to show everyone just what it takes for such a massive plant to grow.

“We’re going to landscape with plants for hummingbirds and butterflies so people will feel like they’re at home on their farm enjoying a meal,” Jessica says.

“Eventually, we’d like to get into having families come out with their children, go out and pick their food, bring it in, and we’ll cook it. It’s going to be an evolution of the restaurant to get families involved in farming and know what it is.”

Herbs are grown near the store on the farm and offered free to produce customers. In addition to all this, Ginny, Jessica’s sister, is a beekeeper and produces the honey sold in the store on tap so customers can buy whatever size they want.

 

The honey also is used to make herbal medicinal products with Leesburg herbalist Heidi Berkovitz. The Bountiful Farms store has a nice array of herbal tinctures in stock, and also stocks an elderberry syrup made by Heidi that is vital for strengthening the immune system and protecting against infections and bacteria.

In addition, community-supported agriculture memberships are available. People buy shares of the farm, guaranteeing them a weekly “bounty” of vegetables.

“It’s basically a guarantee you’re going to get our crops. No one gets their produce until the members have theirs. We are shooting for 125 members this year,” Jessica says. “I also do three farmer’s markets in season at Spanish Springs, Brownwood (The Villages town squares), and in Mount Dora. For the first time this year, we’re going to hire employees to help us because of the restaurant.”

Organic fruits and vegetables, pristine local honey, herbal tinctures, and everybody knows your name. This truly is a “local” farm. If you miss the Gentrys at the farmer’s markets, just go to 27314 County Road 48 in Okahumpka.

About the author

Leigh Neely

Leigh Neely began her writing career with a weekly newspaper in the Florida panhandle, where she not only did the writing but delivered the papers to the post office and dispensers. She has been writing ever since for a variety of newspapers and magazines from New Jersey to Leesburg. With her writing partner, Jan Powell, Leigh has published two novels as Neely Powell.

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