“We always wanted to have a market and a place where people could come to learn about farming and buy healthy, locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.”
That wish is what drove Tom O’Brien, his wife Leanne and daughter Shannon to create O’Brien Family Farms, an offshoot of C & D Fruit & Vegetable Company. It’s been a long journey.
O’Brien’s father Marty returned from World War II with a goal to be in the produce industry. Soon he was working in the produce division of A&P in New Jersey. Tom, who is Marty’s second oldest son, decided to work in the produce industry as well, and when he was old enough, found a job with A&P. In the 1970s, father and son started C & D Fruit and Vegetable Company.
Today the company is one of the most respected produce companies in the Southeast. It’s family run with Tom, his brothers David and Steve, and other family members doing their part. The company grows, sells, consolidates, ships and packs fresh fruits and vegetables grown in the south for customers throughout the U.S. and Canada.
In 2011, Tom decided to make that dream of owning a market and a place to learn come true. He and the family opened up the retail farm market and educational center that features hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables as well as those grown in high tunnels and in row acreage.
“We took about 10 acres of our farm that’s close to the road and developed the O’Brien Family Farms concept,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien Family Farms is famous for its produce and for its tours and field trips. The center is open from November to May and hosts school trips, city and county tours, national sales visits and more. The hydroponic area is also a U-Pick operation.
“My wife and daughter are involved with all the schools in a three-county area. They organize field trips for the kids to come out here to learn about growing fresh fruits and vegetables. We show them that their food doesn’t just come from Publix. It comes from a farm and there’s a lot of work involved,” O’Brien said. “We show them the different ways things are grown such as in the dirt or hydroponically. We teach them about how important honeybees are, too.” The center features honeybee hives where visitors can watch bees reproduce and make honey. O’Brien likes to show visitors how bees pollinate in the squash. “It has such a large flower. The bees make a beeline for it!” he said.
Visitors spend much of their time in the U-Pick section of the center, which is accessible to disabled people. “We set that wide enough so that groups from Easter Seals, for example, can take their wheelchairs through the area. They can easily get around the whole system.” The O’Briens also host nutritionists and chefs, who talk about the health benefits of eating locally grown fruits and vegetables and share tips on preparation.
The center offers a limited food menu and other goodies for sale including jams, jellies and honey. “We just started producing our own honey,” O’Brien said. “Honey has become a big item these days. It amazes me how much we sell. We show visitors how we simply take the frames out of the hives, remove the honey and put it in a jar. We don’t make honey. The bees do that. We just put it in a jar for everyone to enjoy.”
Tour participants have been as young as three years old, although O’Brien says that’s a little young. Most visitors are at least five years old. They also host leadership groups such as Leadership Manatee, a high school group. “Retired people come too,” said O’Brien. “We’re a Farm City Week host. Busloads of people come. We divide up the large groups so everyone has a good, personal experience.
O’Brien’s outgoing personality is an asset as well. He is passionate about spreading the word that fruits and vegetables are a great thing to eat. “I get ‘em going! My wife just shakes her head,” he said. “I’ll be out there saying ‘OK, you’re all going home and making your mom and dad cook more fresh fruits and vegetables!’ They get into the spirit and hold up their strawberries that they picked and say, ‘Look what I picked!’ I’ll tell them to be sure to eat them all and come back for more.”
Making learning about healthy foods is fun for the young visitors, but the main point, O’Brien says, is that it’s critical to teach young people to bypass the sweets and learn to prefer healthier alternatives. “We’re never going to beat the candy companies when it comes to register displays and commercials. So we have to be smarter and figure out a way to get kids to say at a young age, ‘I’d rather have grapes. I’d rather have strawberries. I’d rather have blueberries.’ Why not? They’re as sweet as the candy.”
O’Brien has his eye on growing the center in the future. “I want to start doing things like having a fall festival with maybe a corn maze. It would be great to expand our season a bit because we have customers coming in on the first day we’re open, filling up bags of fruit we just picked and they say, ‘We’ve been dying for you to open! Can’t you guys open up earlier?’”
For now, the market and educational center are open Wednesday through Friday from 10 to 5, Saturday from 9 to 4, and Sunday 10 to 3. They’re closed Monday and Tuesday. You can find them in Bradenton, six miles east of I-75 at 16505 E State Road 64. Visit their website for more information and interesting features here.