This may be the "worst time of year" for Florida veggie growers, according to Vaughn Dufour, but you wouldn't know that from a glance at his herb-stocked booth at the downtown Sarasota farmers market. Three different varieties of mint jockey for space with shiny green and purple basil leaves. Oregano, chives and tarragon pop out of plastic containers. Meanwhile, over at the wooden stand just a short stroll away manned by Vaughn's brother, Dean Dufour, all those herbs share space with catnip, thyme and curly and flat-leaf parsley.
So yes, while summer's broiling sun means tough times for Southwest Florida growers, Dufour Family Farms is doing just fine.
The Dufours grow all their green goods on a plot near Sarasota's Gocio Road. Vaughn purchased the land seven years ago, but he and Dean have only been in the ag business for three years now.
Growing food runs in their veins — they come from a long line of Maine potato farmers. "Farming's been in our family for five generations," Vaughn says, "so we've always been around it." But now they're capitalizing on the ever-expanding locavore market — growing herbs as starter plants that customers can take home and keep, theoretically, forever.
"It's night and day," Vaughn says, when asked about how today's interest in local food compares to years past. He credits "the push for green living" for the mini-boom, a trend that has helped Dufour Family Farms double its income every year.
Dean began gardening organically 15 years ago, when few people cared. He thinks the recession has pushed Americans toward local food: "When the economy did what it did, a lot of people, out of necessity, started gardening again."
I have proven to be a miserable failure in my few previous attempts to raise herbs, but last week, I brought home two varieties I'm hoping will make it: Cuban oregano and culantro, both touted by Vaughn as able to withstand Florida's soupy summers. We'll see — I have a hunch I can kill even the hardiest of plants.
But I won't be able to blame Vaughn and Dean for my failure: They offer customers plenty of advice on how to help their greens thrive. "Morning sun, afternoon shade" is the mantra I hear repeated to all those who stop by the brothers' booths.
If you haven't cooked with herbs picked right off the plant, you don't know what you're missing. Basil, for example, has an enormous, spicy bite that is lacking in the supermarket's limp varieties, and rosemary has a powerful woodsy aroma that gets lost in that soggy little plastic bag in the produce area. Vaughn stresses the importance of buying starter plants that were grown nearby. He says herbs sold at places like Home Depot often suffer because they haven't been acclimated to the area.
Dufour Family Farms gives you every opportunity to catch a whiff of their plants by making the rounds at multiple farmers markets each week: Phillippi Farmhouse on Wednesdays, Englewood on Thursdays, downtown Sarasota on Saturdays and, newest of new, Lakewood Ranch on Fridays. Vaughn says he's "very proud" of the new San Marco Plaza market, which he is helping run. They opened in mid-April with 37 vendors and are planning to go year-round. So as other markets go silent, Lakewood Ranch will keep on humming. "We really think it's going to be a booming, thriving market," Vaughn says. The Dufours grow great herbs in the Florida sun; I doubt they'll have problem building buzz for the new market this season, either.
You can purchase Dufour Family Farms herbs at the Phillippi Farmhouse Market (9 a.m.-2 p.m. each Wed.), the Englewood Farmer's Market (9 a.m.-2 p.m. each Thurs.), the San Marco Plaza Farmers Market (9 a.m.-2 p.m. each Fri.) and the Sarasota Farmers Market (7 a.m.-1 p.m. each Sat.). For more information about Dufour products, email them at email@example.com or like them on Facebook.
This is the fourth entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.