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  • Tara Crutchfield

Fancy Farms Market

“I think between December and January, that’s when the berries taste the best,” according to Fancy Farms Market co-owner Kristi Grooms-Barnes. Hailing from the Winter Strawberry Capital of the nation, growing from Thanksgiving through Easter, Fancy Farms is approaching the height of its season – Valentine’s Day. What’s better than gifting your Valentine fresh chocolate covered strawberries? Each season, thousands of people travel to their acres and acres of green dotted with bright red Sweet Sensations, Medallions, Brilliance, and White Pineberries for a taste of Fancy Farms’ fresh, homemade strawberry treats. 


It’s the 50th crop year for Fancy Farms founders Carl and Dee Dee Grooms. The pair started their strawberry farm in 1974 with just 18 acres in Plant City. “My dad farmed with his dad. It was in his blood,” said daughter Kristi Grooms-Barnes. Over the years, the family acquired more property and reached around 250 acres at their crest. Today, they operate a commercial strawberry farm and roadside market offering seasonal desserts, local produce, and fresh flowers on 135 acres across Hillsborough and Polk Counties. 


Joining Carl and Dee Dee are their son, Dustin Grooms, and daughter, Kristi Grooms-Barnes. Dustin went into the military for eight years before returning to the family farm. “I like the challenge of it. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. I like the challenge of coming out here every day being an entrepreneur, doing the best I can,” Dustin Grooms said.  


After graduating from college, Kristi went into marketing and advertising. She worked in Tampa for 18 years for a company specializing in real estate marketing. About four years ago, she decided to come back to what she knew – strawberries. “I wanted to come back to my family roots and help my brother and continue the legacy that my parents have built here,” she said. “I missed being here. I missed being around my family.” Aunts and uncles help at the farm and market. “It really is a farming family,” Grooms-Barnes said. “My dad has a motto, ‘Since 1974 and still learning.’” 


Dee Dee and Carl Grooms 1976

About ten years ago, the Grooms looked to retire and sold off property, ready to close shop. Dustin was the first one to raise his hand that he wanted to continue their legacy. Four years ago, “He and I came up with this idea to start this little roadside market,” said Grooms-Barnes. 


The idea behind the market was another avenue to sell their strawberries beyond commercially at grocery store chains. Fancy Farms has been a grower partner with the century-old Wish Farms for over 35 years. “My grandfather brought vegetables to the Wishnatzki’s when they used to do produce in the early days when they came to Florida. […] It’s a family affair. We’re all connected here in the agricultural industry,” said Grooms-Barnes. 


“My mom has always baked and cooked everything strawberry. We have all these family recipes that we constantly share with our friends and family,” she added. The decision to launch Fancy Farms Market was made in 2019, though they didn’t open the doors until December 2020. “It was unbelievably successful,” Grooms-Barnes said. “It was almost a movement. People want to know where their food comes from. They want to come out to the farms; they want to see where it’s grown.” 


Alongside their farm-fresh strawberries, the market offers strawberry shortcakes, cobbler, cookies, bread, and hand-spun milkshakes. “All the recipes are homemade right here at the market,” Grooms-Barnes said. They started baking out of a modest 14x24 foot shed they’d converted into a commercial kitchen. After the first year, they expanded their bakery space at the market. 


“My mom and my aunt have trained all the ladies that work for me on the recipes. They know all of our family recipes backward and forwards, just like my momma and my family do,” she said. 



“Everything is homemade here, and everything is fresh. The strawberries we use in our milkshakes are picked in the morning and processed to go directly into our milkshakes when we hand blend them — same thing with our strawberry shortcake. Nothing is frozen. It’s all fresh that day. It creates a different taste in your desserts because you get that tartness with the strawberry followed by that burst of sweetness.” 


Last year, they outgrew their bakery space again and built a third kitchen with the intention of serving lunch. “God has evolved this into something I had no idea. It’s been remarkable, and I’m very blessed,” said Grooms-Barnes. They launched a three-item lunch menu last month with a chicken salad croissant sandwich made with homemade sweet pickle relish, a strawberry BBQ pork sandwich, and Dee Dee’s famous strawberry walnut salad served on a bed of romaine lettuce dressed in homemade strawberry vinaigrette. 


“In the army, they taught to crawl, walk, run. That’s kind of what we’re doing with this, but the crawl part started as a trot. Each year, we plan on building and building. Who knows where it will evolve, but we definitely want to get into the education side of it to educate our youth on where food comes from and how it’s grown,” said Dustin Grooms.  


“My parents have been huge advocates over the years for educating youth,” Grooms-Barnes said. Fancy Farms is a regular supporter of the Hillsborough County 4H program. They’ve hosted an annual U-pick fundraiser for the group for several decades. This year, the Hillsborough County 4H Annual U-pick is scheduled for February 17 at their Plant City farm. It’s their biggest fundraiser of the year, with all proceeds going to the 4H program. 


Eventually the Grooms hope to start a more structured educational program inviting school children to learn how food gets onto their plate from planting a cover crop during the summer which puts nutrients back into the soil to irrigation and laying the plastic. 



According to Grooms-Barnes, “There’s a lot that goes into farming. I’d love to start a program to bring kids in and teach them that.” 


They only get off during the harvesting season when it’s raining. “That doesn’t mean that the truck didn’t break down, that you need to work on the tractor, that you’re going to be doing paperwork. You’re going to be working on something. Every day, something needs to be done on the farm. It never stops, it never sleeps, it doesn’t know if you are sick, or if it’s a vacation or a holiday,” Dustin said. “Strawberries are a very perishable crop. It’s all done by hand. It is a very labor-intensive crop.” Each of their three million strawberry bushes are hand-planted, and it takes 21 days for the berries to grow. They pick from the same bush every two to three days. 


The hard work isn’t done alone, however. Most farmers in Plant City are part of The Florida Strawberry Grower’s Association. Carl Grooms was one of five men to start the organization in the 80s. Its function is to help growers battle diseases, create new varieties, learn agricultural laws, and everything in between. According to FSGA, “Like all farmers, Florida strawberry growers struggle with the same issues and risks associated with food safety, economic stability and government regulations. That’s why FSGA provides access to research, resources and support that help growers proactively make their farms more efficient and competitive in the marketplace.” The organization also works in conjunction with the University of Florida to develop and crossbreed strawberries to produce the firmest berries with the best flavor that can ship across the nation – all traits the consumer looks for. There are about 80 members, with approximately 15,000 acres of strawberries grown in Hillsborough County.



When strawberry season ends, the Fancy Farms Market menu changes. “We completely change the menu throughout each season to keep it fresh,” said Grooms-Barnes. Desserts change to blueberry, blackberry, and peach. While enjoying fresh blackberry cobbler, market-goers can enjoy, pick, and take photos in an endless field of sunflowers and zinnias. “It is unbelievably beautiful,” she said. Flower season is mid-May through the end of June, when they close for the summer through November. 


JUICY STRAWBERRY FACTS: 

Strawberries are in the rose family

Strawberries contain more vitamin C than oranges 

Americans eat roughly seven pounds of strawberries per year

You eat about 200 seeds with every strawberry

February 27 is National Strawberry Day 

 

 Photography by Amy Sexson


Fancy Farms Market 

5204 Drane Field Rd, Lakeland

(813) 478-3486

FB: Fancy Farms Market

IG @fancyfarmsmarket

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