Celebrating celery's history in Seminole County, this organic farm's roots run deep – Orlando Sentinel

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There’s no space in BigDaddy because to Charles Roy Clonts’ grandchildren, his nickname was one word, mashed together and pronounced thusly – as southern a way of doing things as the man himself.
“BigDaddy grew up on a hardscrabble farm in north Georgia with a bunch of brothers – and he knew he had to do something other than farm,” Rex Clonts, one of those grandchildren, tells me. So BigDaddy became a banker.
But when he arrived in Oviedo in 1923, the man who’d learned to manage money saw exactly where it was in this burgeoning Central Florida town. And he decided to get back into farming.
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“Is it intentional that you’re just like him?” I ask Clonts, whose own Oviedo operation – BigDaddy’s Farm – bears his grandfather’s name. He laughs.
“It’s not – but perhaps it is. He is my hero.”
Clonts, too, wears the dual hats of banker and man of the soil. His granddad was a founding member of the Citizen’s Bank of Oviedo. And he’s on the board of several area banks. But today, we’re not discussing finance — we’re talking celery. Because March is National Celery Month — and this crisp delight, which adds so much to so many dishes, was once the backbone crop of Oviedo and Sanford’s farming communities.
Clonts and his wife and partner, Denise, hatched the plan for BigDaddy’s Farm on a napkin over dinner at a Winter Park farm-to-table restaurant. It was 2019. Farming wasn’t new to the couple, of course, nor was celery – but organics was. But Denise, who’d been appointed marketing manager on the ride home from that fateful dinner, was adamant.
Florida is challenging terrain for such endeavors, but they’ve made it work.
BigDaddy’s Farm now grows roughly 50 varieties of produce, 100 percent of which is organic. In three growing seasons, they’ve picked up some impressive kitchens as clients — Luke’s Kitchen + Bar, 1921 Mount Dora, the JW Marriott and The Foreigner among them — and as of September, are open to the public.
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Wednesdays are for online-order pickups only, but the stand is open for walk-in shopping three days a week, and whatever you grab up — beefsteak tomato or shishito pepper or sizable stalk of celery — was grown just steps from the barn-ensconced stand. The little market sits on a patch of land that BigDaddy purchased back in 1923.
“We don’t do the farmers’ markets,” says Denise. “We encourage folks to come here, to see where their food is grown, meet the farmer and have that farm experience. We want it to be so fresh that much of it was picked that morning and people really like the fact that it traveled only steps to be there.”
“In the year I was born, there were thousands of boxes of celery, 80 lbs. each, that were loaded onto train cars in Oviedo on the two railroads that serviced the city.” Rex tells me (it was 1949, among the peak years for celery in this part of Central Florida).
Earlier in the area’s celery-farming history, product was carried by mule cart to steamships that would take the produce north. “When the railroads came, it just boomed. When I was a kid, both lines not only went to Oviedo, they also had spurs that went directly to Black Hammock. There was so much business, they’d go right out to the farms.”
By the mid-1950s, says Rex, celery farming had mostly moved out of town to areas like Zellwood and down near Lake Okeechobee. BigDaddy’s is among a few growers who have brought it back.
“We’re not shipping nationwide,” he notes, “but countywide for sure.” BigDaddy’s only produced an acre of celery, but it’s proven so popular, Rex says they’ll be expanding the crop next year.
“All the juicers!” Denise exclaims. “Some people come here and get seven stalks so they can juice it every single day!”
Celery is difficult but rewarding to grow, says Rex.
“If you do everything right, it is a beautiful, high-yielding crop,” he notes. “If you do something wrong, it’ll let you know quickly and if you catch it right away, it will respond the same way. It’s forgiving.”
And delicious.
BigDaddy’s offers loads of recipes on its website for the many things they grow, celery included. Because of its rich history in Oviedo, there are two versions for chowder. One standard, the other a staple from notable Oviedoan Henry Walcott. It’s the one Denise Clonts uses — but there are no measurements. She’s shared both with Sentinel readers.
“Folks who cook can feel their way through it easily,” she says. “For everyone else, there’s the other one.”
Celery has many fine attributes. Its touted as anti-inflammatory and beneficial to the body’s digestive flora. It’s part of the hallowed chefs’ bases of mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) and its Cajun variation, the “trinity” (onion, celery, bell pepper). Even those less enthused by vegetables have a place in their hearts — not to mention their wing plates and Bloody Marys — for this Central Florida farm icon.
Clonts is delighted to have a hand in bringing it back home – and that his grandfather is a part of it.
“BigDaddy lived to the age of 96, so I got to spend a lot of time with him – growing orange trees and watermelons, hunting and fishing. He was a great man….” He supposes he could have called the farm something sleeker and more modern “like Oviedo Organics,” he suggests.
“But BigDaddy’s is friendlier for striking up a conversation,” he says. “And as we tell them the story of why we call it that, people invariably say, ‘I love that heritage.’”
More info: 285 Howard Ave. in Oviedo, 407-451-4455; bigdaddysorganics.com
From historical Oviedoan Henry Walcott, 1951
Boil together equal parts of diced celery and potatoes.
When tender, add evaporated milk and flour and water mixture to thicken.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add chopped hard-cooked eggs and butter.
Serve with saltines
1 large onion, chopped
2 cups celery (leaves, too)
2 potatoes, diced
3 cups milk
Freshly ground black pepper and salt
1 tablespoon each, fresh parsley and fresh thyme
1/4-cup each, milk and flour
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