New U-pick Strawberries field open west of town

VERO BEACH — It won’t be called Berries of Vero, but that’s what’s growing on the old Veggies of Vero farm west of town. The five-acre Vero U-pick Strawberries, and its 80,000 Canadian-grown plants went in the ground in late October and they’re ripening like nature’s Christmas ornaments, ready to be picked starting Jan. 3.

The U-pick harvest should last through April, says the family that’s growing it, Rebecca and Mark Hornbuckle joined by their son Johnny in the venture.

It’s the only U-pick strawberry farm in the county, and the first sizeable operation since Leonard’s U-pick in Vero closed several years ago. Another Upick operation, Dekker farms in Fort Pierce, has closed as well.

The Hornbuckles have nursed the berries along ever since they and a crew of a dozen laborers first nudged the fledging plants through holes in plastic sheeting and into the farm’s muck-rich soil.

The clear plastic remains in place as a sort of baby blanket over the beds for protection from weeds and weather, and under the berries as they ripen.

They expect to have the U-pick open three days a week, most likely Wednesdays and weekends and will keep people posted through their Facebook page, Vero U-Pick Strawberries.

Hornbuckle Family Farms has been around for years raising citrus; they regularly take their fruit south to farmers’ markets in Palm Beach Gardens, West Palm’s Clematis Street, Lake Worth and Delray Beach.

Recently, they started taking strawberries along, and they’re selling out. Same thing at Vero’s Oceanside market on Saturday mornings.

“They’re sweeter than the grocery stores because they get to ripen all the way,” says Rebecca.

They also chose the sweetest varieties they could find suitable for planting in Florida. “I just google ‘sweetest strawberry Florida’,” she says.

Recent cold weather is exactly what the plants need, she says. Strawberries need a chill. But she’s keeping her muddy-gloved fingers crossed that the family’s efforts will be spared the wrath of nature that devastated their vegetable farm with double floods one year and a freeze the next.

“We’re basically in the same weather pattern here as Plant City on the other side of the state, which is the strawberry capital of the world,” she points out. “You need some cool time for strawberries.”

More than a hundred customers of their veggie delivery service were left in produce panic when their weekly boxes of Swiss chard, multi-colored beets and spring onions suddenly stopped appearing at their doorstep two years ago, when Veggies of Vero closed its gates for good.

Those customers who picked up their vegetable boxes at the farm will know right where to go come January: south on 58th Avenue almost to Oslo Road, then west a half-mile on Fifth St. SW.

As for vegetables, the Hornbuckles are keeping for themselves all that they grow in their sizeable home garden a mile away from the farm. But they are giving more than ever of themselves to the community.

Having mentored two teenagers for years, Rebecca now teaches cooking with the new Youth Guidance Mentoring Academy.

“I want to get as many kids as I can involved in the strawberry farm,” she says.

Mark Hornbuckle used his truck to pull the Youth Guidance float in the Christmas parade a couple of weeks ago.

“I hate to brag, but people saw the Vero U-Pick Strawberries signs on the truck and they were just going crazy asking about it.”

Saturday, the family fanned out to farmer’s markets and sold out of berries.

“As fast as I could cut them, they’d buy them.”

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