Peggy Parke Celebrates 50 Years With Iconic Farm
by K. MICHELE TRICE
photos by MICHAEL WILSON
If you are familiar with the Central Florida area, you know about Parkesdale Farms’ strawberries. You may have stood in a line that wrapped around the Parkesdale Market to get one of their famous strawberry shortcakes or Food Network-featured strawberry milkshakes.
And if you’ve been to the Parkesdale Farms booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City during the past 50 years, you have probably been greeted by Peggy Parke, vice president and co-owner of Parkesdale Farms. Parke has been working the booth since marrying her husband, Bobby, on her 20th birthday and joining the business the same day.
“I’ve done everything on the farm,” Parke says. “They had me work the booth at the Strawberry Festival that first year, and I’ve been there every year since then. But I’ve done everything else, too. I’ve planted and hoed. I’ve worked in the office. I manage all of the shipping now.”
Parke is a fifth-generation Floridian. Born in Lakeland, she grew up in Springhead, outside of Plant City. Her family was in citrus and cattle in Polk County.
“When I was 15 or 16, I remember telling my parents that I would never, ever marry a farmer,” she says laughing. “And lo and behold, what did I do? I have loved farming all of my life. I can’t think of anything I could have loved better. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than farming. There’s always something happening.”
“I can’t explain it,” she continues. “Other farmers will tell you. Once you do it, you can’t give it up. There’s something in our blood. Farming is everything.”
The Parke family originally came to the United States from Northern Ireland and settled in Pittsburgh where they farmed vegetables and dairy cows. When they moved to Florida, they bought 10 acres in Plant City and began farming strawberries.
Today, the day-to-day operations of the farm are managed by Peggy and Bobby’s children — Matt Parke is the Director of Operations; Erin Parke Watson is the Director of Food Safety and Compliance; and Kristen Parke Hitchcock is the Director of Finance and Business Development.
“Roy and Helen Parke, my in-laws, and his father started this business,” Parke says. “Bobby’s brother, Gary, came on board, too. They began the business before Bobby and I took it over, and we grew it into what it is today, thanks to our children getting involved and allowing us to expand.”
“Our children helped create our legacy,” Parke says.
“Growing up on the farm was an experience that taught me how to work hard and be able to witness the fruit of my labor, literally,” says Hitchcock. “Both of my parents encouraged me to get out and explore the earth, plant a seed, make a trail through the cover crop, and take all that we’ve learned and grown to help others.”
“I love watching as my mom and dad continue to love farming and always desiring to make Parkesdale a stronger company, not for themselves, but for all those around them,” Hitchcock continues.
Parke speaks fondly of her seven grandchildren and of the possibility that they might choose to join the family business and move into a career in agriculture. Two are involved in FFA in their schools. “I hope at least some of my grandchildren will want to continue on with my children to grow Parkesdale.”
Parke speaks hopefully about the future of agriculture.
“I’m encouraged to see more young people interested in all of the possible careers in agriculture,” she says. “This is our future. I think (young people) are looking at it in a new light. They can help the farmers. They can be farmers.”
“There are all kinds of ways to continue farming,” she continues. “You can’t eat without a farmer. We have to have people who are willing to farm, to grow things for America to eat.”
While Parkesdale Farms is known for their strawberries, they do grow and sell other things. They grow Pineberries, which Parke says sell well in the northeast and Canada.
“We named this one because it looks like frost on a strawberry,” she explains. “To me, they have a peach, pineapple, apricot taste to them. It’s a different taste. People up North love them.”
She says they also sell lots of long-stemmed berries in anticipation of Valentine’s Day.
They also sell strawberry onions, which are grown in the fields with the strawberries and peas “for the locals.” These are sold at the Market where there are often lines around the building as people wait excitedly for a strawberry treat.
The Market was begun by Roy Parke’s daughter, Cheryl, and her husband, Jim Meeks. Today, it is run by their son, Jim, and his wife, Xiomara.
When asked about her favorite strawberry recipe, Parke talks about the strawberry cookies at the Market but then says, “I would go every day and get the strawberry milkshake. Hands down. They’re special because of the way they make them.”
“We use fresh berries,” she says. “Tons of them. The milkshake won third best dessert on the Food Network a few years ago.”
With all of the things she has done on the farm and all of the expansions they have made, it is still her love of farming and family that drives Parke. “I’m a homegrown, country girl,” she says.
“Come see me at the Strawberry Festival,” she says. “I’d love to see everyone. I am in the office all day, and I’m a people person. I’d love to see people.”