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Healthy foods grown from the heart at Pine Island Tropicals

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Sep 10, 2020

A orange heliconia grown by Donna and Gary Schneider at Pine Island Tropicals.

In the early 1990s, Donna and Gary Schneider began Pine Island Tropicals in Bokeelia. All the fruits and vegetables grown on the 16-acre farm are organic, says Donna.

“The majority of what we grow is edible or tropical,” said Schneider.

In addition to the produce, exotic plants and tropical flowers, such as bromeliads, orchids, and heliconia, Pine Island Tropicals also has a farmers market at fruitscapes, where their retail products can be found.

“During fall and winter, we grow organic vegetables,” said Schneider. “We bring them in on Saturdays. We usually have about six to eight coolers that we harvest for that weekend. We do organic fruits as well, which are seasonal depending on what’s available for the year.”

In 2015, Martha Stewart approached the Schneiders regarding both businesses, which Schneider says was their good fortune. After sending food to Stewart’s test kitchen, they found out she had nominated Pine Island Tropicals for her “American Made” award.

Purple curcuma ginger.

“We’re very fortunate to have exposure through Martha Stewart on our food products,” Schneider said. “We do keep in touch with her. We usually send her a package for her birthday in August. She made a nice comment and posted our food products on her Instagram page and sent that to us with a blurb, so that was good.”

Schneider said Stewart even credited Pine Island Tropicals publicly for growing the best mangoes she’s ever had. Although they don’t sell wholesale, many local businesses find their way to the island-born organics grown at this farm. Due to cottage laws, Schneider said, it will have to remain this way until a commercial kitchen can be set up, although she said many business owners come in to buy products to use themselves or in their restaurant kitchens.

“We’ve also had chefs come in and buy whatever we have that’s seasonal,” said Schneider.

There are also business owners who purchase exotic flower arrangements for customers or events. Although there is no retail florist on the farm, Schneider said she does do custom floral design orders for people using her tropical flowers.

“I’m using products that I’m growing here on the farm,” said Schneider. “Tropicals aren’t a type of flower that you can just stick in a refrigerator like carnations. There are certain times of the year when I actually have buckets of tropical cut flowers that people can purchase at my retail location.”

Photos submitted by Donna Schneider The banner for Momma Donna’s featuring the Martha Stewart American Made designation. Momma Donna’s is operated by Donna and Gary Schneider of Pine Island Tropicals.

Many island events and activities seem to have presented themselves at the time of, or just after, Hurricane Charley, and this, Schneider said, is when she began trying her hand at making jams, preserves and marmalades.

“This was not something I intended to do actually,” said Schneider. “It just so happened that we had the tropical fruits, and at that time people were not buying cut flowers, they weren’t buying tropical plants because everybody obviously was devastated, but they were purchasing food. Food was a necessary commodity at that time. People lost their homes, their businesses and their livelihoods, so there was just no expendable income at that time. We had tropical fruits and vegetables and people in the market had inquired about them so that’s when I started the sideline, ‘Mama Donna’s,’ just from the surplus fruits and vegetables that we grow, and it has blossomed and done well for us.”

From this unplanned adventure, a new product line was born, which has since become nationally award-winning fare. Not only are the Schneiders continually working to provide the island with organic farm grown products, but they are also passionate about educating everyone they meet regarding a healthy lifestyle.

“We definitely share our knowledge and experience through our local garden clubs,” said Schneider. “We also support Pine Island Elementary. Typically on career days we’ll go in and give educational programs, we also let them eat food products they might not have exposure to otherwise. It may be a fruit or vegetable their family may not have tried, so I always encourage them to try new things because you never know when you’ll try something you might not have tried and like it. I always tell them, you’d be surprised how many food products that you’ll enjoy after tasting them. We do the same with our customers. We try to educate people about how to use the food products, from how to prepare them to how to grow and eat them.”

Schneider said this education is important, as what they’ve built is much more than simply a place to sell products. It pays off, she said, each time someone tells them how much they’ve learned.

“We’re not just selling products,” said Schneider. “We want to give from our heart. We grow it, we use it, we eat it … we like to share our knowledge with people.”

Pine Island Tropicals is located at 12870 Stringfellow Road Bokeelia, FL 33922. For additional information, call 239-283-4874 or online visit pineislandtropicals.com.