Jason Ferrell may be in a pickle, but for him it's a good thing.
The owner/operator of Ferrell Produce has just gotten into the pickle business. Along with business partner, Clinton Willis, Ferrell grows, seasons, packs and distributes all-natural, Florida-fresh pickles out of his roadside market in Okeechobee.
The company is called Pirate Pickles. As Ferrell tells it, Willis "plundered" the recipe from his grandmother on the Treasure Coast.
Ferrell's Market at 900 State Road 78 West is located on a piece of property his family bought in 1958 and turned into a dairy farm. In 1999, the family was forced to move the dairy to Basinger because the water management district felt it was too close to Lake Okeechobee, Ferrell said.
Ferrell, who was born in Tallahassee but moved to Okeechobee when he was 2 years old, grew up milking cows and helping to grow vegetables on the farm. After the dairy farm was relocated from the site, Ferrell decided to open up his produce market on it, right beside State Road 78. "It started as a tent on the side of the road," said the father of two.
Ferrell and his wife Denise are the parents of Kimber, 5 and Raylan, 3. "I feel it's very important they grow up like I did," Ferrell emphasized, adding, "I wish I had a dairy farm. This is as close as I can get to it."
The building he erected himself now sells mainly seasonal items to a snowbird clientele. In winter, Ferrell sells lots of citrus and strawberries. In summertime, watermelons, cantaloupes and okra abound. He also sells gator meat he buys from local processors.
And while the stereotypical pirate sails a galleon with a macaw perched on his shoulder, Ferrell captains an airboat and has a couple of juvenile alligators instead.
Licensed to own the reptiles, Ferrell brings them to schools and events for fun and educational purposes.
He also runs an airboat tour business. Behind the market, on Eagle Bay, one of two airboats is docked, ready to take passengers on a breathtakingly fast ride across the tributary and Florida's wilderness. Eagle Bay Airboat Tours is usually booked two days in advance from November through March, Ferrell said.
The boats can take 25 people at a time flying over the surface of the creek, scaring birds out of their roosts with the loud motor and sending lizards, frogs, and other wildlife flying into the boat from time to time.
Today, Ferrell tracked a mother alligator who was moving her young to a new spot. As he pulled the boat alongside her, the animal flung open her mouth and hissed at him while her babies chirped away in the tall aquatic grass.
"There are four mothers nesting in the area," said Ferrell, climbing back up into the driver's seat. "It's nothing to go out and see 200 alligators, we've got so many babies," he added.
He said his first-time customers are generally amazed at the experience. "You go gliding across things you never would have seen a boat go through," Ferrell remarked.
While he already stays pretty busy with the market, the airboat tours, and the pickle business, Ferrell still has big future plans. A new location is being readied at 820 NW Park St. next door to Eli's Trailer Sales. An old tractor dealership that used to reside there has been gutted, and Ferrell plans to restore the building and open up a market there complete with a full kitchen for expanding the pickle business and perhaps a delicatessen.
Ferrell plans to focus on organic produce at the new site and hopes it will be a more convenient location for locals working in downtown Okeechobee.
And, of course, it'll give Pirate Pickles a chance to share their treasure with the locals.
The duo make a garlic and a spicy version of the pickled cucumbers, which are the odd-shaped product grown hydroponically by Whole Foods producer, K&M Foods. They also make pickled swamp cabbage, pickled hot peppers, and pickled okra.
The pair currently distributes the pickled products not only at Ferrell's Market, but also at natural food stores like Sedano's, Earth Origins, and Whole Foods satellite locations. "There are no preservatives, nothing but salt and vinegar," said Ferrell. The sodium level is also lower than standard fare.
The crisp, raw pickled cukes are packed in fresh Florida spring water, and the secret is in Willis' grandmother's spices. If Ferrell told you what was in the brine, you'd have to walk the plank.
The only downside to a fresh pickle versus a grocery store pickle is the shelf life is shorter; the pickles only last about 45 days instead of several months, Ferrell explained.
On the other hand, he offered a different explanation of why these pickles don't tend to hang around: "Our pickles don't last in your refrigerator because they are eaten quicker."