Jerry Sanchez grew up planting seeds and harvesting vegetables in the farms of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
On his way to the farms in Florida, he passed in front of the schools in Leisure City and watched the children carrying their books and bags.
“I would think all these kids were lucky, so I would say, ‘One day, when I grow up, I am going to get my kids to school,’ ” said Sanchez, 42, who didn’t have a chance to finish high school. “And I did.”
He now leases a farm in South Miami-Dade and runs Jerry’s Here. On weekends, Sanchez, his wife Natalia Gaytan, 40, and their three children — along with nieces, nephews and cousins —sell their tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, corn and onions to a growing list of markets around South Florida. On Saturday, they’re at the Coral Gables and Delray Beach markets, on Sunday, the Pinecrest Gardens market. On Monday and Thursdays, they’re at the market at the Ocean Reef Club. On Tuesday, they’re at Palmetto Elementary and Miami Children’s Hospital on Wednesday.
The Sanchezes are one of a growing number of farmers making a living in South Florida, capitalizing on the food-to-table trend. While the Sanchezes take their fruits and veggies to markets, others open the doors of their strawberry fields and vegetable gardens for people to pick their own.
As children, Kathy Magee and Charles Burr Jr., helped their father, Charles Burr, grow his strawberries, even if that meant waking up at 2 a.m. to irrigate the fruits to save them from freezing.
Magee, 61, and Burr Jr., 69, started helping their mother, Mary, 90, at Burr’s Berry Farm in South Miami-Dade after their father died in 2001. Last year, they adopted the hydroponic system, growing the strawberries in vertical structures, and they opened the farm for u-pick.
“We want to encourage our people to know where our food comes from because it’s coming from farther and farther away, from out of the country, and there are very few local farms left,” said Magee, who lives in Orlando with her husband, David, and drives to the farm every strawberry season from December to May.
For Miguel Brito, 21, a visual designer who recently went u-picking for the first time with his father and sister, the best part was finding a perfect strawberry.
“I found this one,” said Brito, proudly holding up a round and red strawberry. “I found it from a distance and it was just dangling. I checked both sides and then snip, in my basket. I’m going take it home, wash it, eat it fresh and save it for a shake or a smoothie.”
The Burrs also have u-pick for carrots, onions, beats and turnips. They also grow mangoes, lychee, tomatoes, peppers, avocados, cucumbers and sunflowers.
Burr Jr. grows the strawberries with farmer Antonio Diaz, while Magee works in the stand, making milkshakes and canning the homemade jams, jellies and salsa.
Mary Burr also helps the customers and makes most of the business decisions.
“It’s a way of life for me. It’s my home,” Mary said.
Charles Burr passed his knowledge of growing strawberries to other local farmers.
“He was known as the strawberry king back then,” said Lynn Chaffin, 59, owner of Strawberry Fields of Kendall. “He taught me a lot about strawberries.”
Chaffin has been managing the fields for 20 years. He grows tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers, cabbage, corn, herbs and strawberries at four Kendall locations.
Sheri Hahn, 54, drives by the field at 117th Avenue and 160th Street every day on her way to work.
“It’s my little slice of heaven. You don’t have to walk that far to find some beautiful vegetables,” said Hahn, while picking tomatoes. “It’s kind of like my second home.”
But Hahn might lose her second home. The Redland Community Council is holding a hearing at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the South Dade Government Center, 10710 SW 211 St., Cutler Bay. The tomato field’s owner is asking for permission to continue farming on the site, even though the property is zoned industrial.
“I wish they wouldn’t close this place. I’m a vegetarian and I shop here all the time. It’s so fresh,” said Neil Chang, 40, a freelance photographer.
Sanchez says his family’s hard work has begun to pay off. In 20 years of business, the size of the family’s stand has almost tripled, and they’re now operating in many markets.
Claire Tomlin, owner of the Market Company, which runs many of the local farmers markets, has witnessed Sanchez’s expansion.
“They are as professional as they can be,” Tomlin said. “They have great products and they work a lot, so people like them.”
And while his children help in the farm and in the market, Sanchez doesn’t want them to follow his career.
“Farming is playing the lottery. You never know what can happen,” he said. “If there’s a cold front, it makes you nervous. You can lose everything in one month. This is my income.”
Their oldest son, David, 21, is studying criminal justice at Miami Dade College and transferring to Florida International University in the fall. Their daughter Natalie, 10, wants to be an astronomer, while Jerry Jr., 8, a teacher.
But even with its uncertainties, Sanchez enjoys his life as a farmer.
“My main goal is seeing that smile on a customer’s face,” he said. “It’s like being an artist.”