O’Brien Family Farms
WORDS BY KATE WIGHT
PHOTOS BY KATHRYN BRASS-PIPER
On the surface, O’Brien Family Farms seems to be your typical roadside farm stand. Crisply painted white rocking chairs line the porch of the big red barnlike building that serves as their retail area. The front room proudly features classic farm stand staples: The shelves are lined with jewel-toned pots of jams and jellies and Mason jars filled with amber- hued honey.
You can browse the cold case featuring specialty items from local dairies while you wait for a handcrafted milkshake or your madeto- order strawberry shortcake made with homemade yellow cake smothered in tart, freshly macerated strawberries and piles of luscious whipped cream.
Continue through the swinging doors, and you’ll be presented with mounds of produce, most of which is grown on-site and handpicked daily. There’s a little bit of everything on offer. You can browse through earthy carrots and radishes; flavorful corn and Florida sweet onions; leafy red and green lettuce and kale; zesty cubanelle, poblano, jalapeño, bell, and banana peppers; crisp celery and cucumber; autumnal zucchini and yellow squash; sweet watermelons and cantaloupes; luscious eggplants and tomatoes; cruciferous cauliflower in white and violet and orange hues as well as the romanesco variety; and, of course, strawberries as far as the eye can see.
It’s a stunning selection, especially when you learn that about 98 percent of it is grown right on the farm (everything else is locally sourced from nearby growers—except the garlic, which comes from Georgia).
The diversity of the produce stand becomes even more impressive, though, when you learn that all of this produce is grown on a mere five acres of land. This is where O’Brien Family Farms really begins to set itself apart from other rural farm stands. They use a state-of-the-art hydroponic Verti-Gro system that maximizes their growing power:
The stackable system enables them to grow up to six acres worth of produce on just one acre of land. And the innovation doesn’t end there: They’ve recently installed a tomato tunnel, which encloses their crop in a carefully calibrated greenhouse. This protected tunnel system ensures that they can produce perfect, vine-ripened hothouse tomatoes for the entire seven-month growing season, even when everyone else is frozen out.
But even though the O’Brien family has embraced new farming technology and techniques, it is still very much a family operation.
The O’Brien Family Farms has its roots (so to speak) in another business. Inspired by his father’s vision, Tom O’Brien founded a wholesale produce distribution company called C&D Fruit and Vegetable Co. in the late 1970s. He still runs that business, alongside a team that includes his brothers David and Steve and his brother-in-law John.
In 2011, Tom put his decades of produce knowledge and experience into practice and opened the O’Brien Family Farms next door in order to serve both as a retail farm market and educational center: Tom’s wife, Leanne, oversees the day-to-day operations there and their daughter, Shannon, assists them with marketing when she’s not busy with her own business. Leanne’s parents both work in the retail area: Her dad, Gray, monitors the retail area and keeps the market well-stocked with eggs from local farms and milk and cream from the nearby Dakin Dairy Farms, while her mom, Donna, warmly greets regular customers and rings up their produce.
But the O’Briens aren’t the only family behind this family business. Raul Vasquez is the farm manager, and not only does he seem to fit right into the O’Brien family with a friendly, easy camaraderie, he also has family members of his own in the business. Raul’s brothers Danny and David run branches of the farm in Ruskin and Parrish respectively. For his part, Raul is incredibly dedicated to the farm. He can tell you everything about the produce for sale, from when it was picked to how it was grown to where it was sourced if it’s one of the few items not grown on-site.
Clockwise: O’Brien Family Farms Honey for sale in market; O’Brien family,
with Leanne’s parents, Gray and Donna who also work in the retail market;
rows and rows of strawberries in Verti-Gro systems;
red leaf lettuce; trimming tomato plants in the tomato tunnels.
He’s a passionate advocate for the Verti-Gro system—in fact, he often helps set up home gardeners with their own systems. He firmly believes there should be transparency in the market, and that everyone should know where their food comes from whether they grow it at home or purchase it at the farm stand.
The family-friendly vibe seems to be contagious. O’Brien Family Farms is a huge draw for local families thanks to their U-pick operation, which contains over 56,000 plants.
You can pluck most of their produce right from the pot or off the vine, including their world-famous strawberries. The educational center inside also has plenty to entertain families as well as the frequent tour groups from nearby schools and senior centers.
There is a bee colony right on-site, where the O’Briens get the honey they sell in the retail market and kids and parents alike love peering through the glass to find the queen bee nestled in among her workers. Their commitment to eco-friendly initiatives also translates into great learning opportunities: They use rain barrels to avoid water waste, and kids love filling a bucket and watering the plants.
The O’Brien Family Farms is really a place like no other. While their use of modern farming techniques and pristine retail area express a level of sophistication, at the heart of it they are all about three things: food, family, and community. They don’t grow produce just because it’s a livelihood; they are all committed to helping people eat fresh local produce because it is better for the environment and doesn’t lose micronutrients after being shipped from across the country. They didn’t set up the farm stand just to sell their produce; they genuinely care about educating people about where food comes from and facilitating ways for even the most novice gardeners to begin growing their own food.
Logistically speaking, the O’Briens have quite the empire on their hands. But at the end of the day, they built it so they could all work together day in and day out doing something they believe in. Be sure to stop by and visit them. They’ll welcome you into their family, too.
The O’Brien Family Farms is located at 16505 E State Road 64 in Bradenton. The farm stand will remain open throughout the growing season 10am–5pm on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, 9am–4pm on Saturdays, and 10am–3pm on Sundays. They are closed Mondays and Tuesdays. For more information, call 941-896-4811 or visit obrienfamilyfarms.com