AFTER YEARS OF FARMING IN LEE COUNTY, Bo McMahon’s family had gotten out of the business in 2000. “It got too hard for small-time farmers to make it in the large-yield commercial farming world,” he says.
But as they watched farmers’ markets and “u-pick” operations grow in popularity over recent years, McMahon and his father, Robert, saw an opportunity to dig back into local agriculture. The family still had a 5-acre plot zoned for agricultural use conveniently located just off busy Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers, right near the Paseo development, which is filled with potential customers.
That’s where they opened Southern Fresh Farms in November 2014. The agripark sells produce and tilapia grown on its acreage at its onsite market and offers tours to educate visitors about different farming methods. There’s also a petting area and playground on the property, which hosts festivals and other events.
“One thing has led to another, and it became easy building on this concept,” says McMahon. “There’s no end to what we could do out here.”
Fearing the family’s land in Fort Myers was being wasted, McMahon and his dad explored the idea of setting up a strawberry u-pick operation there. But when they realized the risks far outweighed the potential rewards, they took a step back.
That’s when they came upon the vertical hydroponic growing system now in use at the farm today, which allows the family to produce a healthy-sized crop of strawberries, lettuce and other produce on just a quarter acre. Growing containers are stacked vertically and are filled with a compost-coconut fiber mixture rather than traditional soil; nutrients come from water and organic fertilizers.
“We can grow as much as we can possibly sell,” says McMahon. Another quarter acre is planted in traditional Florida agricultural style in raised beds.
The McMahons had to scale down their idea of commercial tilapia farming after learning how difficult it was to enter and succeed in that market. Instead, the farm grows, processes, and sells its tilapia onsite to a smaller, local customer base.
In its first season, Southern Fresh Farms had to figure out everything from how to attract customers to which crops would prove popular sellers. It also learned quickly about the difficulties of navigating a complex world of local and state regulations, especially when you’re trying to do a variety of things on one site.
“We’re a farm doing commercial things,” says McMahon. “We’re combining two worlds where there’s a huge gray area in between.” To do all they want at the farm, they’ve had to meet requirements like installing a bathroom with septic in order to obtain a food permit.
Although Southern Fresh has yet to turn a profit, customer traffic is highly encouraging, says Shelly McMahon, co-owner and Robert’s wife. “The number of people who came this year doubled since last year,” she says.
This summer, the farm will be building a second barn to increase its events business. “Barn weddings have exploded in the past few years, and we need a nice barn to be able to get brides to start booking,” says Bo McMahon.
A brewery and beer garden, which will illustrate the beer-making process from plant to pitcher, are in the planning stages. “The farmers’ market and agri-tourism world is catching fire, and so is the craft beer thing,” says McMahon. “We’re hoping to catch wind in both sails.”