by PAUL CATALA
Since 2013, things have been fishy for Rob Bullock. But since Feb. 1, 2022, Bullock, owner of Avon Park’s Bullock Farms, has been “vegging out” as he has starts to diversify his successful aquaponics and fish farm into a viable produce and row crop venture, with the possibility of adding livestock in the future.
After a gradual downsizing of their fish farm since 2017, Bullock and his mother, Jeaneen, have opened a more diversified operation: a small, sustainable farming venture called the Old Florida Homestead, or OFH for short.
Launched on Jeaneen Bullock’s 70th birthday, OFH represents a shift in the farming industry that has sustained the Bullocks for the past nine years.
“For almost a decade now, I’ve worked in aquaculture on my property here in Avon Park. We’re still going to keep an aspect of aquaculture on the homestead,” says Rob Bullock, 37.
“I thought it was more fitting to have a ‘homestead’ versus just ‘Bullock Farms.’ We’ll still have the logo, but I was looking for something that would represent me and my ambitions and where I am presently a little bit more.”
The impetus for adding an agrarian component to Bullock Farms through OFH was Rob Bullock’s bout of life-threatening, necrotizing pancreatitis in 2019.
“It was like starting all over again after four months; my whole entire life came to a screeching halt,” he says. “As I’ve gotten life going again, and after Covid, that’s been a struggle. I realized I needed to do this. It’s a fresh start.”
A native of Avon Park who grew up in Lorida, Bullock says he and his mother have already started producing produce pack services through the OFH website. That service allows individuals and families to order produce packs every week by ordering online or by phone. The packs are obtained on-site or can be delivered to addresses in Avon Park for $5. He says that because his produce business is so new, he hasn’t yet been able to thoroughly gauge its success.
“We just literally founded it and launched the website in the last few weeks. I’m just cleaning up stuff and getting it ready,” says Bullock.
Although the OFH offices in Avon Park aren’t open to the public, Bullock says he’s working on building and opening a working farm stand by late-March.
Much of the knowledge and guidance he has received for the new venture has come from Avon Park’s McCracken Farms. That farm closed last September 2021 after the death of John McCracken in May 2021.
Bullock says the McCracken family helped him learn the produce business and helped him obtain agriculture equipment. Lois McCracken, John’s wife, says she and her husband strived to help “anyone who came in here,” including Bullock. She says OFH will help fill a void left with the closure of McCracken Farms, which specialized in produce such as collards, kale, tomatoes, and squash, as well as plants.
“People don’t like to go just to the store. They want very fresh produce, like what we had here,” she says. “What we had here was very fresh, and it will be that way with Rob.”
The guidance has helped the Bullocks get on track to open and grow OFH. In addition to the orders for produce packs, that growth includes maintaining the aquaculture component of the business. He says Bullock Farms is starting a “grow-out” program, raising fresh tilapia and catfish into adulthood before being sold. In the past, the company hatched and raised fingerlings and sold only tropical fish.
Bullock and OFH also will be working with Avon Park High School on a grow-out program with its aquaculture program in 2023, enabling the high school students to raise tilapia for the local community as well.
“It’s all to support self-sustainability, supporting local and having a local source for some of this stuff,” he says. “The population boom coming here from bigger cities, they’re used to those options and asking about selling full-grown fish. The community needs it, so that’s why we’ve agreed to do that.”
Overall, Bullock says he feels there’s not only an open market for Florida produce but almost a need for one.
“At the end of the day, everything I do is for our community and for the neighbors because we need to support our own,” he says. “It’s so important that people know Florida farmers are still out there. We’ve all overcome so much adversity and obstacles. Even during the lockdowns and supply shortages, we have pushed through and we’re doing that because we know we have to feed people and we have to feed our neighbors and our community.”