Florida on a Tankful: Pick vertical strawberries in Brevard County

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, January 12, 2017, 5:28 AM EST

A padlock is unlocked on a metal fence and unlocks an adventure in good taste.

"You can go anywhere you want to on the farm," says Sherill Spaccio, with the Avalon Hydroponics Farm in Melbourne.

Each weekend morning from now to June, families arrive and grab a pair of safety scissors before heading out with a basket in hand.

"Avalon means 'healing place,'" Sherill says of the two-acre farm she founded with who she calls her better half, an emergency room doctor.

"The best way to take care of yourself and not go to the emergency room — or to a doctor — is to eat healthy and take care of yourself and exercise," Sherill says of the farm's mission.

After parking their cars, people attend a quick orientation at the farmhouse.

"You're going to look for the ruby red strawberries,” Sherill instructs visitors. "Their green hair will be standing straight up."

The Avalon Hydroponics Farm grows strawberries with no dirt.

“We use 50 percent vermiculite and 50 percent perlite, and that's the soil they grow in," Sherill says of the rows upon rows of stacked white pots.

Avalon is home to 1,500 stackers that are full of more than 27,000 strawberry plants.

"They grow much quicker than in the soil, because they have all of the nutrients being given to them three times a day," Sherill says.

"Beautiful one!" says 7-year-old Eli Fox, from Brevard County.

Eli and his grandmother got immersed between the stacks.

"That's a giant one," his grandmother whispers. "Pick good. Cut good. Right there."

Using the safety scissors, Eli snips the strawberry, leaving a large portion of its stem attached.

"The longer the stem, the longer the strawberry will live," Sherill tells visitors. "The nutrient stem will keep it alive for five to seven days."

And while the hunt for red strawberries is easy, so is a taste test in the field.

"Every kid that comes in has to eat at least one strawberry before they go back up to check out," Sherill says.

Eli Fox bested that by 300 percent: "I ate three," he said with a coy grin.

Another benefit for growing vertically: anyone who has a bad back doesn't have to bend over like the traditional field.

Across the farm away from the stackers awaits something else to pick. Duck into the chicken coop and latch on to farm-fresh eggs.

"We have doors they can open up in our chicken coop and they can pick out their eggs, put them in their little carton," Sherill says.

With only 14 chickens, the farm-fresh eggs run out quick after farm opening, but the chickens are happy to be fed by hand.

A small playground made from recycled car tires appears to be a hit with kids — kids at heart.

"Ooohhh! That's perfect!" screams a mom on the teeter-totter as she played with her children.

"Having quality family time, that's important," Sherill concludes.

NOTE: In January 2017, strawberries were $4.50 a pound. The farm is primarily open on weekends, weather permitting. For the most current updates, go to Avalon Farm's Facebook page.

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