For many of us, the pandemic was a reset of our daily values and a return to an appreciation of simplicity. We were baking bread from scratch, converting condo balconies into potted herb gardens, and feeling satisfied with the purity of these domestic pursuits. Sourcing groceries (toilet paper, bleach, hand sanitizer) and produce was tricky at times, and farms in the Naples area stepped up to fill a void at the supermarkets by reminding residents that they’ve got the freshest goods in the land. Though many Southwest Florida farms took a hit when Governor Ron DeSantis closed restaurants on March 20, these businesses have found a way to come back after a storm, much like the crops they so carefully watch over.
With the cooler nights this time of year, local farms are producing lots of vegetables and some fruits, including root vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, ginger, turmeric, star fruit, and heirloom bananas. Depending on the heat, we may need to wait a few weeks for some lettuces. Beekeepers will also have harvested by this point, so look out for local favorites, such as spicy-sweet mango honey.
Just like everything else, 2020 has changed a lot about how farms operate. Some have been around for decades and offer family-friendly opportunities on premises that are COVID-safe, such as pick-your-own. Others have more grown-up amenities like on-site breweries and fine dining. Here, we highlight three near-Naples farms that are figuring out how to survive and even thrive in these crazy times.
Inyoni Organic Farms
In 1984, Nick Batty’s family left the tiny African nation of Swaziland for the promise of the prettiest pineapples. His father was a farmer and took on the challenge of growing pineapples in Immokalee. They were the ornamental variety, the fruit sprouting into pastel colors that would end up flanking entranceways around town.
Batty knew he’d follow his father and grandfather into farming, and he went to The University of Florida to study horticulture. After managing his dad’s operation for four years, he broke away to start an organic farm all his own.
In 2002, he established the six-acre Inyoni Organic Farm down a dirt road in Golden Gate Estates. It now produces 50 vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fruits. He has sold his produce at the Third Street South Farmers Market, the Bonita Shores Club Farmers Market, and via drive-through pickups at the farm.
When the pandemic began, Inyoni was well-suited to ride it out. Batty had begun an online store a year earlier, and the website provided an easy way to transition away from farmers markets. While Inyoni lost some restaurant business, “we did okay compared to some other people,” says Batty.
This year the farm has lots of changes planned. Batty envisions a farmers market run on the property, and his wife, Natalie, has dreams of a food truck that can serve as a mobile kitchen for dinners, lunches, and special events.
The winter is also Batty’s favorite time of year, when the sweat of the summer is behind him and everything is coming into season. The tomatoes, cucumbers, pretty much everything, will change your mind about buying produce in the supermarket, he notes.
“Because we are selling locally, we can harvest later, because we don’t have to ship them, and they will be riper and taste better than the stuff from California in grocery stores,” Batty says. “Once you get a taste for it, you can really tell the difference.”
Southern Fresh Farms
Growing up in South Fort Myers, Shelly McMahon admits she knew nothing about farming. “Then I married a farmer, way back in 1980,” she says.
Her husband, Robert McMahon, worked with his father to manage a large-scale commercial farm. In 1988, Shelly and Robert moved out to five acres on State Road 82 and got out of agriculture for a bit, working on environmental restoration projects instead. In 2013, they started thinking about converting their property into a farm and discovered vertical growing. “We don’t have a huge piece of land, but we learned we could grow up instead of out,” McMahon says.
Now, at Southern Fresh Farms, they grow flowers and 80 varieties of vegetables, all of them snaking up towers from planter beds. Most of it is hydroponic except for the tomatoes, which the McMahons figured out just taste better when they grow in soil. All of it is sold right there on the property and also made into dishes served up at the farm’s café.
There’s a playground for the kids, rescued farm animals to adore, and a brewery, Crazy Dingo, that uses hops grown on-site as well. Southern Fresh also rents out 4-by-10-foot garden plots so people can tend and grow their own veggies; it’s so popular, there’s always a long wait list for the 26 spaces.
Even with all the things they’ve added, McMahon says she’s most proud of her produce. “We know we can grow a good product,” she says. “When somebody says, ‘Hey, can I have some lettuce?’ We go out and pick it for them. And it will last two weeks. You buy it from the grocery store, and it has already had so many temperature changes that it just won’t last.”
The pandemic did change some things; they separated the tables that hold the vegetables in the market so people could social distance, and there are lines now to help people queue up safely. But McMahon says business went well this year, because many people preferred her open-air market to the big-box stores.
This winter, the McMahons hope to operate on as large of a scale as they always have. They plan to move the brewery into a bigger space on the property, and they’re adding shade to the playground. This is also the season when just about everything is fresh, so it’s a busy time for the farm. “November is when things start to pop, almost everything really,” McMahon notes. “You name it we’ve got it, and it’s fresh.”
Rosy Tomorrows Heritage Farm
Back in 2019, Rosy Tomorrows scored a major endorsement when the News-Press named its restaurant one of the 27 best in Fort Myers. Afterward, there was rarely an empty table at the eatery on the farm, with reservations booked weeks out. That all ended when the pandemic hit, and owner Rose O’Dell King had no idea what was next.
“A lot of these restaurants, they can just turn off the lights and walk away for a while,” O’Dell King says. “But we’re a farm, and we have to keep going. What were we going to do with everything we were producing?”
At that point, O’Dell King had been a full-time farmer for six years. Before that, she’d spent a lifetime as a French Culinary Institute–trained chef, certified sommelier, and food and wine columnist. When she opened Rosy Tomorrows, she started raising heritage breeds of pigs and cattle—animals that aren’t as efficient as the ones used by industrial food companies but yield tastier meat when pasture-raised. She also grows produce and herbs, and all of it dictated the dishes at her restaurant.
With the lockdown forcing the closure of the restaurant, she had to figure out what to do with what she was producing. “It was a pretty scary time when this happened because you think, ‘How am I going to carry on?’”
On a whim, she tried packaging it all. She called them Rosy Goodness Boxes and posted them on Facebook. Priced at $125 a piece, 50 boxes sold out in 20 minutes. Months later, she’s still selling out every week and capping her production at 100 to ensure quality. The boxes include the meats from her heritage breed animals, whatever is fresh from the garden, and a sampling of other products she likes, including artisan honey and the specialty shade-grown coffee she served at the restaurant.
Every August, the farm does a massive planting, so there’s a cornucopia of vegetables come autumn. She’s also hoping to host a full roster of classes, wine dinners, and events this winter. In addition, she has repurposed the restaurant tables to dry herbs. It was hard to take at first, seeing the restaurant she built sitting empty. But then the boxes became a source of pride—and a way to save her farm with her own ingenuity.