Family farm dream falters because of finances

Jerry and Becky Hoffman sought to craft a farm in the mold of those he remembered as a child. But the plan went awry and now the Big Red Barn at Fern Hill Family Farms up for auction.

Harris Auctions

Jerry and Becky Hoffman sought to craft a farm in the mold of those he remembered as a child. But the plan went awry and now the Big Red Barn at Fern Hill Family Farms up for auction.

RIVERVIEW — Jerry Hoffman longed to create a family farm like the ones he remembered as a kid in Indiana.

A successful general contractor, Hoffman believed he could parlay his business skills and interest in farming into a thriving farmers market. He thought hard work, a decent nest egg to finance the project and the public's passion for homegrown fruits and vegetables would allow his plan to succeed.

"We wanted to expose families and children to how food was grown and how it was produced," he said.

Hoffman and his wife, Becky, who live in Valrico, planned the venture together. They reminisced about what they loved about farmers markets in the Midwest where they grew up and recalled what they liked about farmers markets locally and across the Sunshine State.

They did their research on what it would take to create a family farm.

The couple put their general contracting business, Verticon Inc., on hold while they planned, grew and nurtured the farm at 10070 Fern Hill Drive, off Gibsonton Drive.

In December, Riverview's Big Red Barn at Fern Hill Family Farms welcomed the public for strawberry season. Families scattered across the property and gobbled up the farm's luscious strawberries. Customers also praised the Hoffmans over their grand plan to create a farmers market.

"We were very well received by the community," Hoffman said. "We had high hopes."

Over the winter and spring, the Hoffmans put the finishing touches on the 16.5-acre farm. On May 3, they proudly held the grand opening. The Red Barn offered homegrown fruits, vegetables, candy, preserves and a deli with mouth-watering sandwiches. But, by the end of May, the farm had closed its doors and the dream was dead.

Hoffman, 57, said the farm required long work hours and lots of cash. In a month, the farm had sapped the couple's energy and drained too much of their money, an amount he declined to reveal. He said they could not keep their dream alive any longer.

"It was a huge undertaking and larger than we envisioned," Hoffman said. "We're very sad we had to close."

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Hoffman's dream will be sold piece by piece in a public auction. The items in the auction can be previewed at the farm Friday between noon and 6 p.m. Many of the items can be seen online at harrisauctionsllc.com

John Harris of Harris Auctions LLC said there are about 350 items in the auction, including antiques, furniture, farm equipment and supplies and restaurant and grocery equipment.

"I assure you there's something for everyone there," Harris said.

Harris is saddened over the loss of the farm and the Hoffmans' dream. He had visited the farm and picked strawberries with his granddaughter, unaware it would close and he would handle the auction.

"I didn't want to do an auction," Harris said. "I wanted to go there and pick strawberries."

Harris described Hoffman as a good, kind man and said the closing is devastating to Hoffman and his family.

"This is something he needs to do," Harris said. "Not something he wants to do."

Last month, Kathy Prevatt took Girl Scout Troop 132 of Riverview on a field trip to the Big Red Barn. They toured the property, learned about farming and got a goody bag of fruits and vegetables.

"They got to learn the different ways of growing things," Prevatt said. "I thought it was a good experience."

Prevatt said she was shocked to learn the farmers market closed shortly after the troop's visit. She had planned to go back with her family.

"I was looking forward to picking strawberries during strawberry season," the Brandon woman said.

Hoffman said he will likely sell the land at a future date. Hoffman still thinks he had a great idea and doesn't know why the business failed.

"Perhaps our dream was a little large and it was going to take a little longer," he said.

Despite closing the business, Hoffman said he encourages others to continue to pursue their dreams. He and his wife plan to return to their general contracting business.

"We're going to be okay," he said. "We're going to be starting over, but we'll be able to do that. We were so grateful to have a dream like that. We are not bitter at all.

"We're grateful for the opportunity to try."

Monica Bennett can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

. If you go

Public auction

Fern Hill Family Farms, 10070 Fern Hill Drive, has closed and its equipment, antiques and supplies will be sold in an auction Saturday at 10 a.m. A preview will be held from noon until 6 p.m. today.

Family farm dream falters because of finances 06/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 5:05pm]

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