Strawberry fields: Datz Restaurant Group has fun on the farm in Plant City

On Tuesday, the Tampa restaurant group picked, packed and learned from Strawberry Sue.

click to enlarge Jenn Thai, of local lifestyle blog This Jenn Girl, holds some of Tuesday's sweet strawberry haul. - Shelbi Hayes
Shelbi Hayes
Jenn Thai, of local lifestyle blog This Jenn Girl, holds some of Tuesday's sweet strawberry haul.

An added bonus while dining out is knowing that the ingredients on your plate are locally sourced. But it's even better if you can learn about what you're eating, too.

On Tuesday, Datz Restaurant Group made that happen. Members of the Tampa-based restaurant group took a trip to Tampa's backyard, Plant City, to pick fresh strawberries, and also to learn about Florida strawberry cultivation from Strawberry Sue Harrell, marketing director for the Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA).

Datz owner Suzanne Perry wants to make sure her restaurants “are talking about Florida growers.” By taking some of her team out into the fields with FSGA and bloggers @ThisJennGirl, @EatTampa, @FamilyFoodie and @TracyGuida, she’s doing just that.

The day began at Sweet Life Farms, also known as Strawberry Station, where Strawberry Sue shared her knowledge of the fruit and how they've shaped Plant City. She spoke about strawberry school, which used to refer to the way the school year was set up to revolve around harvest times, and how much money the city's little red berry gets annually, which is roughly $700 million in Florida alone.

click to enlarge Welcome to Sweet Life Farms, or Strawberry Station, where the berries are ready for pickin'. - Shelbi Hayes
Shelbi Hayes
Welcome to Sweet Life Farms, or Strawberry Station, where the berries are ready for pickin'.

After Strawberry Sue’s introduction, her husband Mark Harrell, a third-generation strawberry farmer, and Sweet Life Farms manager Andy McDonald showed the Datz team how to pick and pack strawberries  vibrant red berry up, calyx (the green leafy region) down.

The fun wasn’t over, though. The Datz group split into three teams to see who could fill three clamshells of strawberries the fastest, and then came photos with the giant John Deere tractor.

After the farm visit, Datz and Strawberry Sue headed over to the FSGA headquarters in Dover to speak with Kenneth Parker, executive director of FSGA, before lunch. Kenneth had a lot to say about the business and education side of Florida strawberries.

Big parts of FSGA are the Florida Strawberry Patent Service Corp. and Florida Strawberry Research and Education Foundations. The patent service does just that: it patents strawberry varieties to try to prevent other growers from stealing them.

click to enlarge Andy McDonald with Strawberry Sue and Mark Harrell. - Shelbi Hayes
Shelbi Hayes
Andy McDonald with Strawberry Sue and Mark Harrell.

The varieties developed at the FSGA location are a part of a partnership with the University of Florida and FSGA. Each year, they test out hundreds of varieties made by cross-breeding 20,000 to 30,000 seedlings using genetic identification, not modification, “to produce a berry that tastes good, lasts long and meets consumer desire.” The FSGA has already identified one of their new varieties for winter 2017: "121-5," or the Florida Beauty.

Parker also discussed how Florida strawberry growers “don’t have the luxury of picking and storing.” Strawberries from Plant City go from farm-to-store or farm-to-restaurant without a storage facility.

The day on the farm ended with lunch, courtesy of FSGA from the nearby Johnson Barbeque and chocolate-covered strawberries and strawberry shortcake made by Strawberry Sue. If you want to learn about strawberries, Parker says, FSGA’s door is open to anyone.

Datz marketing and PR manager Tony Pullaro gave CL some insight to their new strawberry-infused dishes. Keep your eye open for strawberry shortcake pancakes, strawberry bruschetta, strawberry doughnut cones and a revamp of Datz’s “Lettuce Entertain You” salad.

click to enlarge Tiffany Dale, director of members and community services for FSGA, presents Strawberry Sue's huge chocolate-covered strawberries. - Shelbi Hayes
Shelbi Hayes
Tiffany Dale, director of members and community services for FSGA, presents Strawberry Sue's huge chocolate-covered strawberries.

click to enlarge Outside strawberry season, the Harrells take their tractors out to prep the land for other farmers. But check out these stylish strawberry beanies Strawberry Sue gave everyone. - Shelbi Hayes
Shelbi Hayes
Outside strawberry season, the Harrells take their tractors out to prep the land for other farmers. But check out these stylish strawberry beanies Strawberry Sue gave everyone.

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