Sunsational Farms is an hour North of Orlando in Umatilla, Florida. I knew I had arrived when I was greeted by the enormous glowing orange perched on the front lawn. This overgrow orange has acted as a roadside attraction in many towns across Florida since the 70s. After being abandoned in a field, it was relocated from Lakeland, Florida, to Mount Dora, Florida, where it served as a roadside attraction off of US HWY 141 as a fruit stand. When life as a fruit stand ended, the orange made its way to Sunsational Farms, where it stands brightly, welcoming tourists into the farm.
Sunsational Hydroponic Farm
The hydroponic farm at Sunsational Farms serves as an educational tool to introduce school children to an alternative way to grow fruits and vegetables. Those fruits and vegetables are then sold in the gift shop for visitors to purchase—allowing for a farm-to-table experience in a compact and efficient space.
I was fortunate to tour of the hydroponic greenhouse by the owner of Sunsational Farms. Various vegetables grew from floor to ceiling; green peppers, cherry tomatoes, kale, and lettuce were neatly placed in organized rows. Each pot is injected with a thin tube to directly provide a precise amount of water and fertilizer to each plant. The sunset-colored beefsteak tomatoes weighed down on the branches. They would be cherry red in a few days, ready to be sliced and topped on a burger.
I was most impressed by the columns of strawberries filling several of the greenhouses. Each pillar of strawberries held sixteen plants; the base supported the structure and had carrots and beets to soak up discarded water. A one-acre strawberry crop will house 17,500 plants. Using a vertical hydroponic farm, the same number of plants will only need 4375 sq ft. If each vertical hydroponic stand is a 2 foot by 2-foot space, the same quantity of strawberries plants can be planted in 90% less space; or in the same 1-acre plot, a farmer could grow almost 10x as many berries.
Farm to Table Gift Shop
Inside the gift shop, fresh produce, Florida-themed trinkets, and homemade jams lined the store’s perimeter. Above the selves were collections of vintage citrus-themed pitchers and teapots, a subtle nod to the past when citrus farms blanketed most of central Florida. These nostalgic finds reminded me of my grandparent’s house, where we could always find juice in these types of containers. Making fresh lemonade from their lemon tree was a must in the summer.
As I looped around the store, I made my last stop at the concession stand, where Sunsational Farms offers sweet soft serve with a citrus twist, banana splits, milkshakes, snow cones, and key lime pie straight from Key West. I chose the creamsicle twist and sat under the shadow of the giant concrete Orange. I appreciate that they didn’t add a bright artificial orange dye to the ice cream. Visually this refreshing treat may not scream citrus flavor, but with one bite, your tastebuds will be dancing between the sweet vanilla to the delightful orange flavors.
Sunsational Farm Special Event Space
I finished my dessert, as a birthday party was ending. High on sugar, kids raced around the lawn playing hide and seek. A wooden jungle gym was under construction, certain to be a fun addition to allow kids to burn off that excess energy in the future. The large pole barn exterior was dotted with bistro lights, adding a warm glow to the picnic tables below. The space is open-air, perfect for large gatherings, with plenty of room for kids to run around.
My afternoon spent at Sunsational Farms was precisely what I had hoped. I love their commitment to education by allowing field trips to the farm, creating opportunities for children to learn where produce comes from before it hits the supermarket shelves. Learning about the efficiency of hydropic farming to grow fruits and vegetables in a fraction of the space made me feel inspired to want to start a small farm on my patio.
Agricultural and farming were a big part of my childhood. My grandparents grew a garden every summer, then either canned or froze the produce to eat throughout the year. My father hunted in the winter for whitetail deer. Most meals I ate as a child were from one or both sources. Learning to appreciate where my food came from still resonates with me as an adult. I want to start this new series to highlight the importance of Florida farms. Not only does it have a nice ring to it, but it underscores the vital work farmers do to put food on our tables every day.
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