Some ‘U-Pic-Em’ fields still thriving in Kendall

Colombian sisters, Josephina and Dibueve Hermanos, purchase red peppers and cabbage from Rosa Amelia.

For those demanding only the freshest veggies, December has long had a special significance in Kendall. That’s when the first winter crops turn up at roadside stands to spice salads with ripe tomatoes and top holiday desserts with juicy strawberries.

Once a common sight dotting Kendall farmlands, “U-Pic-Em” displayed on handpainted signs once very common on many small farms in southwestern Miami-Dade County, attracted gourmets and thrifty housewives alike.

Now only two fields remain to carry on the Kendall tradition of picking your own fruit or vegetables when the season begins.

Two Kendall stands surrounded by small leased acreages date back three generations to the late Jack Wishart and his now-retired partner, Lynn Chaffin, the two men operating Kendall fields for more than 25 years during the latter part of the past century.

Now, Karl Wiegandt, husband of Lynn’s daughter, Lisa, manages more than 20 acres of farming produce in the two West Kendall locations with an up-to-date website you can visit at “Strawberries of Kendall.”

“Decided to change careers from mortgage brokering to managing an agricultural business six years ago,” said Wiegandt, 33, as the University of Florida business graduate primed an old-fashioned red pump and washed a handful of red tomatoes, hand-picked from a 12-acre field at 9600 SW 137 Ave.

“We’re a little late on the strawberries this year but we’ll be putting them out by the end of the month,” he added before visiting the family’s second 10-acre plot at 8800 SW 167 Ave. amidst bustling new community homes and shopping centers, just east of Krome (SW !77th) Avenue.

A third field operated by Chaffin eventually gave way to suburban sprawl off SW 137th Avenue to become the site of the London Square development.

“We once had 40 acres next to the lake off SW 117th Avenue,” recalled Chaffin who came to Miami from Arkansas to join Wishart in the farming venture. “That one went when the new Town and Country Center was built.

“Before then, people may remember the acreage where Dadeland now stands. For years in the ’50s, that was a popular pick ’em field before development of the mall began in 1960.”

Noting that while Miami-Dade was once a major U.S. center for winter crops, Chaffin said increased competition from Mexican and South American farms has impacted dramatically the cost of business, more than the availability of land.

“It’s not so much the crowding out of agricultural land as it is the cost associated with bringing crops to market,” he pointed out. “It costs $12,000 to $14,000 to harvest one acre of strawberries and $10,500 to $11,000 for an acre of tomatoes, just about the break even point with leased land and operational costs.”

Two severe freezes in January and December of 2010 also took a toll on small acreage farming but Chaffin suspects roadside stands should continue in places like the Redland, if they totally disappear in Kendall.

“Plenty of folks still like picking their own,” Wiegandt said, noting strawberry selfpickers save 25 cents a box at $2.50 compared with $2.75 at the stand while handpicked tomatoes cut 50 cents from the standbought $1.50 per pound price.

Buckets of gladiolas and sunflowers and eight types of herbs (sold in earth-packed boxes) also join vegetables from avocados to zucchini, displayed beside bright red radishes the size of golf balls.

Plump “Pablamo” green peppers, a “hot” variety at $1.50 per pound, are a favorite among West Kendall’s booming Hispanic population, too.

“All picked today,” Wiegandt emphasized. “We’re up at dawn, making absolutely sure everything is fresh-picked the same day.”

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