Drive to the end of the dirt roadin Loxahatchee, through a landscape reminiscent of old-time South Florida, and Jim Berke soon has you eating a fresh persimmon and chewing on mango jerky.
Mango jerky? Persimmons?
A lot of surprising things await visitors to Leechango Plantation at Turtle Creek, Berke’s turtle-themed 25-acre place bordering swampland west of West Palm Beach. He built a Tudor-style home here in 1977 after four years of living in a Seminole Indian-style chickee in the swamp.
Loxahatchee means “turtle river” in a native language, explaining the turtle paintings and ceramics adorning Berke’s walls, tables and flowerbeds. A New Jersey native who spent early manhood in New York City, the swamp country remade him after he came here seeking a simpler life. He raised a family here, taught himself the nuances of co-existing with the wild creatures of the Everglades, and began a farming business that has steadily evolved through the decades.
As the 21st century rolled in, Berke knew he could grow good fruit and tomatoes. He also knew value-added products had better profit potential than the fresh fruit market. After analyzing his situation, he decided to try to take advantage of the asset that made Florida famous — the sun.
“I decided to convert my operation to sun drying and see what the market potential for that would be,” he says.
For 15 years, starting in the 1980s, Berke had been in the goat cheese business and had built up a herd of 100 milking goats. He enjoyed developing markets for the cheese, but the goat dairy was time-consuming and stressful. A late 1990’s divorce aimed his life in another direction; he sold the goats and processing equipment in 2003 and began a search for something else to do.
“I made a conscious decision to make a transition. I had a licensed food processing business, so it made sense to continue to do something with food. I started planting mangoes, avocados, papayas, bananas, persimmons and other fruit, and in 2004 put up a shade house for tomatoes.
“Tomatoes gave me a hard knockslesson. I was wondering what would sun dry best, and I found out pretty fast that heirloom tomatoes didn’t dry well at all — they were too big. It was a disaster! I talked to some tomato people and got into plum tomatoes, which are smaller and dry really well. I’m now growing red, yellow and purple plum tomatoes.”
Tasting those sun-dried tomatoes pointed him toward his new life. He sold the first sun-dried products in 2008 and right away started developing more products.
“I like agriculture,” Berke says, “but I wanted to make sales directly to the end user, not some middle guy. I hated the idea of the dairy goat treadmill I’d been on for 15 years and didn’t want to remotely be involved with anything like that again. With the dairy, if the refrigerator went out at midnight Friday, I had to fix it right then — I didn’t have the luxury of waiting until Monday morning.”
Now, the plum tomatoes form the base for his biggest-selling product, sun-dried pesto. He mixes the sun-dried tomatoes with basil, olive oil and garlic in a recipe developed especially for him. It sells in an eight-ounce container, enough to use on big salads or 1-1/2 pounds of pasta.
“Pesto outdoes my other products three-to-one,” he says. “My other products are good, too, but for some reason people really go for the pesto.”
His second best seller is sun-dried rosemary marinade, with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and rosemary. Number three: a tapenade with sun-dried yellow tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. Other products are Jamaican-flavored, Southwestern, French and Greek.
“I like the idea of producing something with no time-frame on it,” Berke says. “If a hotel says they need 10 pounds of pesto, I pull out the ingredients and work up enough to match the order.
“I was in the right place at the right time with the sun-dried business. I’m 25 minutes from the back door of the Breakers Hotel on Palm Beach, which buys a lot of my product. Plus, markets have turned local, and there are a lot of green markets here now. We’re seeing local people selling good products, without preservatives or any of that kind of stuff. I enjoy getting in those local markets and letting people taste my products to see what they like. I learn a lot about marketing out there.”
A unique sun-dried mango productis also a big seller for Berke. He calls it “fruit leather” or “mango jerky,” and he isn’t kidding. He picks mangoes off his trees and dries them on-site. He had to develop his own drying techniques for mangoes, though, and to help figure it out, he even consulted with a fruit drying company near Valencia, Spain.
“Mangoes are different from other fruit,” he says. “With apples, there are machines for coring, slicing and drying. No such equipment exists for mangoes. Plus, there are 250 types of mangoes — and there’s no uniformity: there are big ones, little ones, in-between ones. But you’ve got to peel the mango by hand. And if you’re going to dry slices, you need them to be uniform, because drying is a function of heat, humidity, ventilation and thickness of product.”
He found that a lot of mango meat comes off with the peeled skin. That seemed wasteful, so he experimented with running peels and pits over a grater. That produces a bucket of mango pulp, which he pours into small molds similar to plastic lids, then dries in the sun.
“Voila! You have mango jerky, with no waste at all. It’s a great little product, and I developed it myself. You can put it in a lunch box and it won’t go bad. It doesn’t need refrigeration. It’s packed with nutrition and vitamins, and has no sugar or preservatives. It’s a healthy alternative to things like potato chips.
“Another issue with mangoes was how to measure out the pulp. The pulp was difficult to dispense in order to get a nice, even amount on each tray. I was at an IHOP and saw the way they put out pancake batter, and I thought: that’s the answer. I went to a restaurant supply place and got one of the devices. It turned out that it can be adjusted, so it was readily workable. With the mango operation now, there’s very little that can go wrong. It’s easily maintained.”
Berke says continual experimentation keeps his latest business venture interesting. He tried party decorating racks for the sun-drying process, but the fruit dropped through them. Then he found that mesh on the racks would both hold the fruit and allow it to dry properly. No single mesh works for all fruit, however.
“Mangoes do better on heavy mesh and tomatoes and persimmons do better on lighter mesh. Everything is in a constant process of experimentation. I’m pioneering this stuff — necessity is the mother of invention. There’s a lot of necessity around here, so there’s a lot of inventing going on.”
He can dry 3,500 pounds of fruit in the solar drying room on a good, sunny day. The trick, he says, is to put the fruit in early, before the sun comes up, to take advantage of every minute of sunlight. Solar drying came with its own learning curve, he says.
“By 1 p.m., the temperature in there can be up to 120 degrees. I don’t want it too hot, because the fruit will caramelize (it doesn’t affect the taste, but it doesn’t look very good). That means I have to watch the solar room temperature. On a good day, by 7 p.m., the dried fruit is ready to pull out. It’s a kind of start-early, go-late thing, but I don’t mind. We have a good work environment here — I get the music playing and time just goes by.”
Berke built quite a lot of his equipment. He converted stainless steel refrigerators into dryers and puts them to work on cloudy days.
“I don’t like using them; I’d rather do all solar drying. But I’m not stuck in the drying process if it’s a bad weather day. They do a good job. Heat runs up through them; you dry the fruit in there, not cook it.”
Last year’s freezes seriously damagedsome of Berke’s trees. Mangoes were killed back to the ground, but are now growing out. His papaya, banana, avocado and persimmon trees look good, almost a year later.
Picking a couple of persimmons from a tree, Berke says, “Bet you didn’t know persimmons would grow in south Florida — most people don’t. But we can grow really good persimmons. This is such a fertile area with a great climate for growing things; it can amaze you. I’ve been blessed to be able to live here and be involved with agriculture.”
Berke developed his place on the highest ground in the Loxahatchee area, he says. It has six wells and five ponds. An underground drainage system extends over a big part of the land, which moves excess water along quickly.
The name Leechango Plantation is something he made up by combining the words lychee and mango.
“We can grow good lychees here, but they just won’t sun-dry and turn out right. You can’t have everything, can you?”