Florida’s Nature Coast is home to the sweetest strawberry festival in the world. Not too big name entertainment, no carnival rides, no huge crowds – just lots of delicious, locally grown strawberries in a beautiful park with a lot of home-spun fun right off US Highway 41 in Floral Park.
This weekend, March 4-5, is the Insight Credit Union Strawberry Festival, a.k.a. the 30th Annual Floral City Strawberry Festival.
The Citrus County Agricultural Alliance & Citrus County Cattlemen’s Association will be in charge of the strawberry shortcake tent, with a portion of the sale proceeds given to the organization to support their local projects.
The festival will open Saturday at the main stage with a presentation of the colors by the VFW Color Guard, followed by Sheriff Mike Prendergast leading the Pledge of Allegiance and delivering opening remarks. Citrus County Clerk of the Courts Angela Vick will sing the National Anthem. Over 200 vendors will offer everything from arts and crafts to festival foods.
Florida is the largest producer of winter strawberries, starting its strawberry production over 100 years ago. In fact, Henry Plant realized that when visitors came to Tampa on his recently built railroad, they would be great consumers for winter strawberries grown locally. The Plant City-Dover area of Hillsborough and Polk counties is known as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World!” and they host the Florida Strawberry Festival, but it’s got nothing on Floral City’s festival if you go to a strawberry festival to consume lots of the delicious, fresh-grown red ripe goodies!
But we’re in the Nature Coast, so why do we have a strawberry festival?
In 1931, L.G. ‘Doc’ Ferris came to Citrus County from Kenosha, Wisconsin, hoping to strike in rich in land development. He promoted Duval Island as a resort, but the Great Depression came swiftly, putting an end to that idea. In 1934 Doc Ferris began planting Florida citrus, Hamlin and Navel oranges, Dancy and Murcott tangerines, Honeybell tangelos, Flame and Ruby Red grapefruit, successfully growing and shipping fantastic Florida citrus for 50 years!
A packing house was built in 1944. A retail store was soon added on US 41 to accommodate automobile traffic. The business thrived. Doc Ferris worked tirelessly to promote Floral City and Citrus County to anyone he met. He was a generous, well-love man who died too young in 1975. His widow sold their 330-acre grove to Southern Citrus in 1979 and they continued to grow, pack and ship Florida gift fruit and open the retail store throughout the winter months.
In December, 1983 and January, 1984, there were back-to-back devastating freezes of the citrus crop. The entire grove was destroyed! At this point, many citrus growers gave up and sold their land to developers, but Southern Citrus had another idea – they would plant 25 acres of strawberries, 24 acres of citrus, and the rest in watermelon, onions, tomatoes and broccoli.
The strawberries thrived. All of the acreage that had been used for other crops was converted to strawberries over the years, except the 24 acres of citrus.
The Citrus County Chronicle interviewed Vance Whitaker, who breeds and researches strawberries at the University of Florida, said Duval Island’s geography was key to the berries’ success.
“Being surrounded by water helps the temperatures from getting too cold,” Whitaker said. “It is like a little microclimate suitable for strawberry production even though it is farther north than other producers.”
So, in 1987, Martha Burns, known fondly around Floral City as “Aunt Martha,” was put in charge of creating a festival to help raise awareness and sell the berries. At the time, she was managing the Ferris Groves retail store. Now she has a produce market just north of the intersection of US 41 and Orange Avenue where she features organic and healthful produce, meats, eggs, Amish noodles and preserves.
Martha describes the first Ferris Groves event as “an old-fashioned festival, with a hay wagon stage for entertainment in a field on the other side of Ferris Groves, local fire departments and high school wrestling and sports teams competed in tug of war games, local media personalities held whipped cream fights, there were drawings for prizes and lots of volunteers to help with the fun – and strawberries – lots and lots of strawberries that everyone loved.”
After 5 years, the Floral City Strawberry Festival became so popular that it had to be moved down to Floral Park, about 3 miles south of town.
Management of the event was handed over to the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce with the stipulation that it would always be held in Floral City and that it would always use Ferris strawberries as long as they were available.
This Year’s Festival Features:
Amy Gerhartz and Mike Mentz will be headlining Saturday.
Joining the performance lineup Saturday is The Jody Beggs Band; DJ Diorio and the Dan Story Band will perform Sunday. David Furman, juggler, comedian, and entertainer, will perform both days as well. Seen on Good Morning America and America’s Got Talent, David’s energy and enthusiasm make him a hit wherever he goes. Don’t miss him at Strawberry Fest 2017!
A Kid Zone will be on the east side of the festival grounds, and feature a rock wall, bungee jump, inflatables, kiddie train, and the attractions of aqua bubbles and human hamster balls. The young (and old) ones will want to stay all day!
A beer and wine garden will be located near the main entertainment stage. Check out this year’s improved and expanded list of beers and wines!
Strawberry shortcake will be readily available at the north end of the festival. The Citrus County Cattlemen’s Association will be busy, busy, busy churning out the most delectable strawberry shortcake ever. Still only $4 for one of the sweetest treats in the county!
It’s messy, but great fun! Try your hand at the strawberry pie eating contests beginning at 12:30 pm on Saturday and Sunday near the shortcake tent. There will be contests for the adults, along with special contests for the little ones. ONE MINUTE to eat the most strawberry and whip cream pie will earn $50 for the winner in each category and the honorary title of “Chowhound Champ.”
And yes, we do provide water and towelettes for post- noshing cleanup for faces and hands. There are 3 categories – ages 10 and under, ages 11 – 17, and ages 18 and over. On Saturday only, there is also a category for those aged 50 and over for our more “mature” patrons. Advanced sign-up is required.
NEW THIS YEAR! Team Strawberry Wars!
New this year are two team challenge pie-eating wars! Stick around after the age-category contests to witness teams battle it out for a team trophy and bragging rights!
Saturday: Citrus County Sheriff’s Office v. Citrus County Sheriff Fire Rescue
Sunday: Citrus Memorial Hospital v. Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center
Admission to the festival is $5 per person; children 12 and younger free and free parking is available in a pasture off US 41 south of the park. Shuttles are available for free with festival admission.
If you make it to downtown Floral City, be sure to visit Aunt Martha’s Produce (1 block N of the US 41/Orange Ave. intersection) and tell Martha “Thanks” for getting this great tradition going!