– Still learning after all these years
– Carl Grooms sums up his philosophy on his business card: “Since 1974 and still learning,” it says. “Still learning” is his son Dustin’s philosophy as well. Dustin Grooms is a member of the FFVA Emerging Leader Development Class 4 and recently returned from the group’s trip to Tallahassee. “The people we met with all seemed to be big supporters of agriculture, which was good, but it seemed like that number was a little small. You’d like to see more people, but at least we have some good people in the fight,” he said.
Dustin Grooms grew up on his family’s Plant City strawberry operation, Fancy Farms, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue the tradition when he was younger. He paid his dues on the farm, mainly “grunt work,” as he puts it. After graduating from high school, he joined the Army and stayed eight and a half years. Eventually he decided to return to the farm, which has seen its share of changes over the years.
When Carl Grooms started Fancy Farms with his wife, Dee-Dee, in 1974, it was strictly a small, family-run operation. “Dad started with 15 acres and it was him, my mom, my uncle, my aunt and some neighbors’ kids who helped after school,” Grooms said. “My dad had to set the berries, he had to spray them, pick them, and take them to town. It was all on him. It evolved from that to now where it takes a couple hundred people to do it all. It’s changed a lot. Beginning with that 15 acres, expanded several times to a total of 75 acres, which we maintained for a decade before we started expanding again,” he said. “That was when I got back from the Army. We decided we were going to take more property in and expand, and now we are up to 230 acres.”
Fancy Farms grows strawberries today but experimented with other crops over the years including specialty peppers, eggplant and squash. “These days we try to extend our strawberry growing season by harvesting juice strawberries and processing berries late in the season. We don’t have to take a gamble on growing another crop, not knowing whether there’s going to be a market for it. We’ve already got the infrastructure and we’re able to make a little bit of money off the juice deal,” Grooms said. Fancy Farms specializes in the Florida Radiance variety and maintains a small test field of the new Sweet Sensation strawberry.
One big change Fancy Farms has seen is the development of tractor technology. The farm uses a GPS-driven system to lay the plastic on which the berries are grown. It also uses a new 12-row sprayer system in addition to a six-row sprayer system. And the farm uses drip irrigation now for fertilizer application and irrigation instead of an overhead system.
“The cost of every single thing on this farm has gone up. The only thing that doesn’t go up is our returns.” – Dustin Grooms
One thing that hasn’t changed is the need for a dependable work force. “Labor is a huge concern for us,” Grooms said. “We used to have a steady force that would come year after year. That force has dwindled down, so now we use the H-2A guest-worker program. We actually go through the government to bring people in to our farm. We did it ourselves the first year — with some outside help, but now we use Florida East Coast Travel Services (a subsidiary of FFVA). We call on Mike Carlton and his team maybe once a week for guidance. There’s always something new coming up that we’re not sure how to handle. It’s a very hard program to try to make work.”
Among the other issues that create challenges on the farm are costs of inputs. “The cost of every single thing on this farm has gone up. The only thing that doesn’t go up is our returns. That’s a major problem because you can only do something for so long for less than a certain minimum amount of money,” he said.
Regardless, the Grooms family believes in giving back to the community and the future of the industry. Fancy Farms will hold its 8th Annual U-Pick on March 21. “We donate a portion of our field to the 4-H Club and they get to keep all the proceeds for their organization,” he said. Learn more about the U-Pick here.
Fancy Farms sells its berries through Wish Farms (more here) and runs a fruit stand at the corner of Rice and County Line Road in Plant City. The stand is open daily during strawberry season. Call 813-478-3486 for more information.
Learn more about Fancy Farms on the operation’s website.