It started with a simple question:
Why was the head chef at the high-end restaurant where they worked in Florida ordering fresh, organic produce from a farm all the way in Germany?
The answer they received: “Because it’s better than what we can get here in the states.”
The quest to find out why—and how to change that—eventually became Bountiful Farms and Bistro.
Located in Okahumpka, FL, approximately 30 minutes from Winter Garden, 45 minutes from Orlando, and a little over an hour from both Lakeland and Tampa, Bountiful Farms and Bistro is the dream of chefs Gareth and Jessica Gentry who met in culinary school.
After marrying in 2003, the couple spent several years working in the restaurant industry in South Florida where their vision for growing vibrant, healthy, organic foods in Florida evolved.
“In the U.S. the food industry forces certain colors and types of produce on the public so they can mass produce it,” explained Jessica, “but the quality is very poor because of the use of chemicals that has stripped the nutritional content away from the soil. So we understood why our boss, the German chef, was buying his produce from Germany. Almost all of the farms over there are family owned and operated, and the crops are paid lots of love and attention. From that we saw the benefits of organic farming, and knew we wanted to prepare food with the freshest, cleanest, healthiest ingredients available.
Enter Okahumpka, Florida - population 278.
It was here that Gareth’s grandfather was raised in the early 1900s and where, at age 6, he began working alongside the family who grew watermelons and citrus. At that time, the railroad used to stop right near the property, so in anticipation of the arriving passengers and potential customers they would stack the watermelons up against one of two massive Oak trees on the property. Their enterprise continued to expand and eventually also encompassed growing food to support the troops during World War II.
Gareth and Jessica inherited 3 acres of the property, with the hope of purchasing and completely renovating his grandparent’s original house which was then owned by a relative. The journey from then until now is peppered with loads of hard work, loss, renewal, tenacity, and forward progress.
The couple broke ground in 2009 and most all of the work—from spending three years to hand lay the irrigation system, building the Propagation House - the first new formal structure on the property, preparing the soil, sprouting all of the seedlings, and more—they performed themselves. And every year over the past eight years they've added something new—A Finishing House, Finishing Room, The Tomato House, and Lettuce Greenhouse, all designed to allow for rolling growth—from seed to harvest—year-round.
“You really you have to be a Jack-of-all-trades,” Jessica said. “There were many times we didn't think any of this would happen. But we still tried.”
And oh yeah, they gave birth to fraternal twins along the way!
A Real Community Gathering Place
What you find today is a now 10-acre, thriving, inviting, and wonderful farm and bistro that draws not only locals from all around the Central Florida area, but out-of-state visitors as well.
The processes, consciousness, and love the Gentry’s put into every aspect of the property are evident everywhere you look. They use compact planting practices to maximize every square footage of the land, while also allowing each crop to flourish according to its natural, growth pattern. Where many home gardeners or other farmers may decide to pull any weeds, The Gentry’s instead keep them to help absorb excess rainfall. And each new building erected is carefully designed to maximize the natural sunlight and weather patterns.
The only “pesticide” they use is Kaolin Clay, also known as China Clay, a fine ground mineral that's safe for humans and used in a lot of beauty products, but acts as a natural pulverizer for soft body insects when they walk over it.
At the Tomato House they adhere to a strict entry protocol whereby they only enter after showering at their adjacent home, putting on fresh clothing, going directly to the building, and donning special shoes – all to ensure that the tomatoes don’t become infected with any kind of fungus or mites which can be easily transmitted from humans.
The end result? An astounding 50 to 60 pounds of beautiful, succulent tomatoes a day in a good harvest season, increasing to 70 to 80 pounds throughout the winter!
A big, multicolored variety can be found in the farm’s lettuce crop. The red lettuces are grown outdoors; the various green varieties inside the Lettuce Greenhouse for eight weeks through a self-designed and built hydroponics system using PVC pipe.
“We really focus on growing them until they are big leaf so that our bistro customers can enjoy one large leaf per sandwich, instead of pieces of smaller leaves that will fall off of the bread,” said Jessica. “And by mixing the red and green lettuces together for our salads, you get this nice, soft and crunchy mix.”
The key, Gareth and Jessica say, to their overall growth (no pun intended) is the strength of their diversity. Approximately 30 to 45 different crop varieties are available every week for customers, over 120 in an overall season for their own family consumption and weekly farmer’s markets – all of it bountiful, organic, chemical-free, and farm-to-table fresh.
Visitors to the farm will find bok choy, sprouts, Brandywine and Cherokee Purple heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, onions, cabbage, kale, multicolored peppers, carrots, broccoli, purple cabbage, and okra, just to name a few.
On Wednesdays, the farm is transformed into an onsite farmer’s market featuring over 60 vendors offering everything from produce to bread, jewelry, honeys and jams, natural products…everything you’d expect to find at a traditional farmer’s market. All vendors have to be their own craftsman (no resellers), and unlike some other entities that may charge high booth fees, the Gentry’s only charge just enough to help cover the extra staff needed for directing traffic, set-up, and clean-up.
“We don't want to profit off of others hard work,” said Jessica. “It's hard enough to be in the business. We just want everyone to be successful.”
You will also find Bountiful Farms and Bistro booths at the Winter Garden Farmers Market and the Brownwood Farmers Market in The Villages on Saturdays, the Celebration Farmer’s Market on Sundays, and in January they will join the Clermont Farmer’s Market, also on Sundays.
The Gentry’s are also able to supply restaurants, currently working with only Turners Kitchen + Bar in Leesburg. But this type of association goes beyond just coming by to choose some produce.
“We sit down and talk with the proprietors about their restaurant demographics, and what they’d like for the season ahead,” explained Jessica, “so that we're always planting for them six weeks before they need anything.”
Customers can also purchase via a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that runs from October through April, providing at least 30 crop choices for each order. It’s all part of allowing people to experience the freshness and health benefits of farm-to-table eating.
Like any residence or business in Florida, there is always the possibility of damage from hurricanes. And that was the case in 1989 when Hurricane Irma tore through the state and the entire farm was submerged underwater. Because of the business structure of the farm The Gentry’s had at the time, they were not eligible for government relief assistance. Nevertheless, the Okahumpka community and other customers steeped up to the plate.
“If it weren't for our customers, we would have gone out of business altogether,” Jessica recalled. “They started sending money, different groups pulled together to do fundraisers, people showed up and volunteered to help, we'd open the mailbox and find checks… We've received a lot of blessings along the way and have been so grateful and humbled.”
Today at the produce store on the property Gareth and Jessica have created a very intimate, fun, throwback to an old-style country store using vintage items in the décor including pot stoves, tin walls, handmade curtain valances, reclaimed wood, hobby benches, antique racks, and even a record player with loads of classic 33 LPs available for people to choose music they’d like to enjoy while ambling about with the store’s crosshatch baskets to shop. In addition to their produce, the store also features wares from over half a dozen other craftsman vendors, again, their presence at a reasonable fee to cover the extra staff needed to represent those products during the week.
Adjacent to the store is also a “U-Pick Garden” where visitors can snap off just a pinch of herbs—rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley, and others—to flavor a meal they may be making that day. Its another nice touch that demonstrates The Gentry’s love of sharing what they do.
The Old Oak Trees
One of the biggest draws to Bountiful Farms and Bistro is the second half of its name—The Bistro.
Opened in the Fall of 2018, The Bistro is an open-air oasis set under the verdant canopy of the majestic Oak tree where Gareth’s grandfather and family sold their watermelons and citrus well over 100 years ago.
The fresh ingredients grown on the farm are incorporated into all their dishes, the menu changing seasonally plus the addition of weekly specials.
Think creative and delightful what they call “innovative American fare” dishes (the Gentry’s are professional chefs, after all!) like the Roasted Beet Skins filled with Gruyere cheese, scallions, bacon, and sour cream and finished in the broiler; the “Kale Yeah Dip” made with white beans, artichokes, onions, coconut milk, and kale and served with Mediterranean corn chips, or the house made egg rolls with shredded carrots, bok choy, scallions, cilantro, and cabbage and served with lemon balm and basil soy.
On the salad front there’s the BF Wedgie—marinated grilled chicken breast with poached egg on lightly grilled romaine, cucumbers, heirloom tomato chutney, shaved red onion, Gruyere cheese, garlic vinaigrette and house made croutons, and the Fresh and Fruity blend of soft lettuces, blueberries, strawberries, Stilton blue cheese, cinnamon, and honey roasted pecan and served with a lemon balsamic vinaigrette, just to name a few.
Their Bountiful Burger features aged, local, 1/2 pound, 100% grass fed beef, lettuce, tomato, and onion with your choice of Cheddar, Swiss or Provolone cheeses, and the Vegan Burger is made with grilled portobello mushrooms, caramelized onions, and a black bean herb spread, and served on Seedtastic bread with bibb lettuce and tomato.