Ferrell’s Markets experiencing business boom

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
OKEECHOBEE — Some of the gang at Ferrell’s Market on State Road 70 in downtown Okeechobee took a moment out to pose for this photo. From left are Ashley McCullers, Denise and Jason Ferrell, Lynn Cruz and Nicole Hunt.

OKEECHOBEE — Business has been so brisk at Ferrell’s Market’s two locations so far this year that owner Jason Ferrell is hiring, but it’s not a foodie-type employee he needs.

“I’m actually looking for, like, a babysitter combination daycare person to take care of all my employees’ kids, who have been hanging out here a lot since they’re out of school,” said Mr. Ferrell, chasing his youngest son out of the back room so he could have a quick conversation.

More or less, all his conversations lately have been of the quick variety because he hardly ever stops moving, there’s so much to do.

He and his wife, Denise, decided some years back to go into selling meat from the produce market as well, and that part of the business has really taken off, especially in this time of societal upheaval due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have their own butcher and just recently started serving up full steak dinners for takeout on Friday nights.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
OKEECHOBEE COUNTY — Ashley McCullers rearranges some fresh tomatoes at the Ferrell’s Market outlet on State Road 78 southwest of town. A stone’s throw away are the docks from which they run airboat rides on the Rim Canal.

Kinks in the markets

Producers’ prices have skidded because the coronavirus health emergency has interrupted normal supply chains and put kinks in the markets, causing widespread uncertainty and unusual price fluctuations.

Mr. Ferrell explained: “I made it a point when all this started, if I could find a good deal, I was not going to price-gouge our community, you know. I was going to do everything I could do build my clientele and let everybody know that we’re all in this together, and I’ve tried not to go up on any of my prices unless it started eating (into profits), so there’s only a few things that we’ve had to go up like 50 cents a pound on.”

He has never limited the amounts of meats that clients may purchase. “I don’t foresee us doing that, and I don’t want to,” he said. “I’m just ordering heavy and filling up every freezer and every square inch of cooler space I’ve got. So we just try our best to help the community as much as I can.”

Fresh Access Bucks

Because of a grant that Ferrell’s Market joined in on several years ago, he’s still offering the Green Coin/Fresh Access Bucks program enabled by the federal government. Some of the program’s rules have been relaxed due to the coronavirus health emergency, he noted.

“They lifted the amount (limit) because of coronavirus. If you come in and you have $200 or $300 a month in food stamps and you want to … spend it all at once so you’re not out in the public 10 or 15 times, we will match dollar-for-dollar as much food stamps as you’ve got.”

He explained further: “So (in that case), I’m … going to give you a $300 voucher for local produce. Now, this grant was written — and I get a lot of flak from people who don’t have food stamps — but I didn’t write the grant. I’m just here to help support the local community. The grant was written to help local farmers. All that is to buy produce from local farmers. So we have to source all of our — everything that we can get local, we buy local.”

When society gets on its feet again and out of the COVID-19 pall, Mr. Ferrell wants to try to harness another U.S. Department of Agriculture program that is available to help relieve the plight of people living in what are known as “food deserts,” places where there are very limited options for buying locally grown produce and products.

Further grant possibilities

“I’m working with some people at the college, IRSC, that do some grants, and there’s some other grants that really fit our communities well … (for) trying to get produce in front of small communities, like putting a little one- or two-day market in Basinger, in Fort Drum, Buckhead Ridge, Taylor Creek and all the retirement communities — go in there and help them.”

He’s well aware that these food deserts are present in the Lake Okeechobee region to the south, such as in Moore Haven, outlying parts of Glades and Hendry counties, to a lesser extent in the cities of LaBelle and Clewiston, and, ironically, out in some of the richest farmland existing in the world, in the western “Glades” reaches of Palm Beach County.

He said that to get these grants, interested for-profit businesses such as his must join with a not-for-profit organization to apply and become involved.

The Green Coin is an example. “It was originally set up by the nonprofit Florida Organic Growers. They’re the ones that originally structured that one the first time, who we partnered with then, and somebody else has got it now.”

Another business the Ferrells operate is called Eagle Bay Airboat Rides and is run out of their market on State Road 78 on the Rim Canal south of town. As of Monday, May 4, it was back in business under the COVID-19 restrictions that Florida’s governor has been gradually relaxing.

“We’re just trying to be there for people who’re wanting to get out, so yeah, we’re open for the airboat rides,” Mr. Ferrell said.

Neither of his markets have changed their hours or shut down at any time during the coronavirus crisis. Ashley McCullers, one of Ferrell’s roving employees, works at both the one downtown and south of town.

She said on Monday, May 4, at the SR 78 location that they were expecting a couple of small groups who wanted to take advantage of an airboat ride. “We’re going to be restarting those today … (but) we’re only going to be doing small groups — groups of families that are together, not me and you and Joe Bob” … because social distancing is not possible on a small boat. People have been calling to inquire about rides “for weeks on end,” she stated.

“Ninety percent of my customers tell me how thankful they are that we still are open, because it avoids them going into Walmart or Winn Dixie,” she said. “They can come in, enjoy the open air but, then, 98 percent of my customers do come in with their masks and gloves on,” Ms. McCullers added. She wears them, too, most of the time, although employees aren’t required to.

“They are very thankful that the farmers’ market is still open.”

She added that she’s very happy to be working, as well. “I’m just so tired! We work 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and we’re nonstop. This store is 8 to 6, that store is 8 to 7, and then Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we’re 8 to 8.

“Our business at the other store has tripled,” she went on. “Since this virus started, we are slammed, all day.”

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