EAST MANATEE -- On a warm afternoon day, Guy Averill, general manager of Watercress Farms, kneels on the soft soil beneath his work boots and gently pulls a small leafy plant, no bigger than a quarter, from the ground.
"In five weeks, this will be fully grown and shipped to Europe," he said.
Unlike the many fruit and vegetable farms in East Manatee, which ship products throughout the country or sell to consumers and retailers wholesale locally, Watercress Farms has an unusual supply base. Ninety-nine percent of its watercress crop is shopped to the United Kingdom.
At the 500-acre farm, artificial rivers, perfectly designed by lasers, are flooded to grow the vegetables. The workers on site use specially designed equipment to harvest the vegetables. Two to three days later, the product is already packaged in grocery stores in the UK.
Watercress must stay at a certain temperature so the vegetables are vacuum-cooled on the farm, loaded into climate-controlled shipping crates on site and delivered via semi-truck to Orlando. The product is then flown approximately 4,358 miles on Virgin Airlines to the UK.
A peppery vegetable used in salads and other dishes, the growing season for watercress begins in November and will end in May. Also known as a medicinal plant, it has been used to treat kidney and liver disorders, tuberculosis and through research funded by the parent company of the farm, The Watercress Company, is being used in a study for breast cancer cell development.
"It has more calcium than milk and more Vitamin C than an orange," Averill said.
Five-hundred thousand tons of watercress is expected to be grown on the farm this year, a significant increase from 424,000 tons grown last year. In 1995, The Watercress Company purchased the land in Myakka City for its American operation. The company also has
a watercress farm in Spain. Averill said the Myakka City property was an ideal location for its proximity to international airports and mild winters.
Though the demand for watercress is high in the UK, Averill said it doesn't have the means to produce it.
"We can't grow it in England," he said. "There's no climate, no room and no environment available."
There are 140 beds of watercress in Myakka City, compared to 100 beds in all of England, Averill said.
Watercress Farms employs 30 workers, the majorityof whom are local. The farm is also involved in Manatee agricultural events and provides tours to the public.
A small portion of the crop is sold to local restaurants through the Suncoast Food Alliance, a group of small farmers working with food establishments in the Tampa Bay area.
"They have been tremendous to work with," said John Matthews, founder of Suncoast Food Alliance. "They give me a lot of insight of what they export to England. The restaurants I work with get their product every week. I think it's a great product."
Matthews said orders for watercress increase by the season.
"They'll cut it that morning, I'll pick it up and I'll have in their restaurants that afternoon," Matthews said.
Watercress Farms began with 72 beds, but will expand to 160 within the next few years, Averill said.
The vegetable is the oldest product produced by man and is found on every continent. In England, Averill said it commonly referred to as "the poor man's roast beef."
"It's recognized as a super food," he said.
For more information about Watercress Farms, visit www.watercressfarmsinc.com.
Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams.