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Florida farm celebrates 50 years of strawberries
By Matt Milkovich
Assistant Editor
Parkesdale Farms is celebrating 50 years of growing strawberries in the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.

That’s what Plant City, Fla., calls itself. The city is hosting the Florida Strawberry Festival this month, and Parkesdale Farms planned to include a 50th-anniversary float in the annual parade, said Cheryl Meeks, daughter of the farm’s owner, Roy Parke Jr.

Every member of the family worked on the float on evenings and weekends, the only moments they could spare from their busy schedules. Cheryl and her husband, Jim, run Parkesdale Farm Market, the retail arm of the business. Her sister Sandy directs the strawberry festival. Colleen, her other sister, runs the greenhouses, which grow more than a million vegetable and flowering plants, according to the Web site, www.parkesdale.com.

The brothers grow the berries: Bobby oversees 180 conventional acres, and Gary grows hydroponic berries, exotic herbs and other crops, Cheryl said.

The farm has more than 200 employees, a quarter of them at the market. Cheryl and Jim, both in their 60s, are having a hard time keeping up with the demands of running a year-round farm market, but their son and his family are joining the business next year, which should give the elder couple a chance to rest. They’re not ready to quit, though.

“We’ll show them the ropes,” Cheryl said.

The 6,000-square-foot, open-air market is open seven days a week – except in summer, when it’s closed Sundays and Mondays. When the new managers arrive, the market will probably stay open all week for the entire year, she said.

“It takes both of us going as fast as we can go.”

The market sells about 300 11-pound strawberry flats per day during peak season. The most popular item, however, is the shortcake. The Parkes use their own strawberries in a special recipe, one they came up with to please both Northern and Southern palates.

“Northerners like cake, but in the South they like biscuits,” Cheryl said. “Ours is right in the middle. We came up with something to please both.”

They must have, because they serve more than 3,000 shortcakes a day. The confections are sold only when the strawberries are fresh, January through April. Frozen strawberries work well in milk shakes, which are sold year round, but they’re not good enough for the shortcake.

“We don’t want to ruin our reputation,” Cheryl said.

Customers like to eat their shortcake in the greenhouses, where they can listen to music and look at the plants, she said.

The market has grown since it opened in 1969. It’s now the largest fresh strawberry, citrus and produce market in Florida, according to the Web site.

The farm also does well in wholesale strawberries. In-season, it sells 5,000 to 6,000 flats per day to markets in big cities like Chicago, Boston and New York, Cheryl said.

The family raises vegetables. Cucumbers are a staple. They used to have their own citrus groves, but they were destroyed in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve rented groves season to season. They also own a packinghouse, where their produce and that of other farmers is packed and shipped, she said.