First-generation farmers put down roots in Central Florida’s suburbs
by Joseph Hayes
Agriculture in the state of Florida is a multi-billion-dollar industry, a big business of corporate farmers utilizing massive machines, countless tonnage of chemical fertilizer and pesticides, even computer-guided harvesters and flying drone cameras. There are 48,000 farms spread over 9.5 million acres, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
The people you’ll meet today are not those farmers.
The New Farmer
Inner city and urban farms are a growing trend, pun firmly intended. Up to 15 percent of our food, from community farms to backyard chickens and beehives, originates from within metropolitan areas, according to the University of Florida. In abandoned lot gardens in Ft. Lauderdale, an old trolley repair building in Tampa and a former water treatment plant in Hillsborough County, Florida farmers grow, and live, in a mostly urban environment.
But even in what might be considered traditional farmland, the new generation of agrarians look to untraditional techniques, organic methods and an idealistic love of the land that many have thought was lost forever.
Chef Mike Garcia
Mike Garcia not only cooks for “food ambassadors” Farm & Haus for its food delivery and pop-up dinners, but he supplies a lot of the ingredients from the land behind his home.
It’s a family affair at his very urban farm, mere minutes from downtown Orlando. Garcia has worked for the Ravenous Pig family and opened the original Smiling Bison location; co-farmer Jordan Albright works at Downtown Credo. Albright’s partner, Jessica Straight, tends the field with their baby on her hip; Garcia’s wife, Nikki, whom he met in middle school, was pulling greens while very pregnant during this interview.
These young, committed farmers subscribe to the precepts of permaculture—care for the earth, care for the people, take only your fair share—while caring for their lives along with their produce.
Thirty-six neatly tilled rows cover 5,000 square feet from fence to fence of Garcia’s backyard—and the yard next door, owned by the same landlord. That’s right; this is a rental farm, in a residential neighborhood, within hearing distance of a major urban avenue. It’s sort of like a lawn, but edible.
“This is our first season,” says Nikki. “It’s basically sand farming, but we keep at it.” Aided by layers of mushroom compost, they concentrate on quick and continuous harvest, growing greens, tomatoes and radishes that can be gathered in 25 to 70 days, delivering upwards of 80 pounds of the hyper-local crops a week to local restaurants.
Is it legal to farm in a neighborhood? State legislatures seem to think so; the 2016 Florida Right to Farm Act protects the rights of farming use of “urbanized” residential land.
Still, Garcia reluctantly concedes that planting a farm in a backyard garden is, at its heart, an act of rebellion.
“I’m a professional cook,” he says. “But as every year goes by I get more passionate about growing things. I look at everything now from a farmer’s perspective. I’d rather spend 60 hours here than in a kitchen.”
“I ask myself why we do this all the time.”
Amy Van Scoik, along with John Bitter, founded Frog Song Organics in the fall of 2011. The hardships of new-generation organic farming life have been heard from the lips of farmers for hundreds, even thousands of years.
“I was up at 4:45 to get here today,” she says from behind a booth at the Winter Park Farmers’ Market. “We’re at the mercy of the weather … there’s a drought, and then it’ll rain for weeks. One season we’ll have a freeze that kills everything, the next there will be an excess we can’t get rid of.”
Van Scoik wasn’t born into the farming life, but there are genetic echoes. Her grandfather was an extension agent in the Midwest; her mother’s family can trace back to farmland in Southern China. She grew up in St. Petersburg; Bitter is a Winter Park boy. They met in the University of Florida plant science program, part of a group of “organic farmer nerds.”
“We wanted to be a part of a group of people who could change food policy,” she says.
A forest of peppery mizuna leaves, watermelon radishes and tiny fingerling sweet potatoes fills the tables. Homemade kimchee, bright lumpy carrots and a rainbow of string beans are on offer.
Van Scoik and Bitter set out to buy a farm in California. Once the stunning reality of land prices set in, they did “what we swore we’d never do, and came back to Florida.” They started with 6 acres of residential land in Hawthorne in Alachua County. The first year, Bitter’s mom planted 10,000 onions herself. After five years on the farm, they have expanded to 61 acres, growing more than 80 different types of produce, herbs, fruits and flowers.
Their direct-from-the-farm Community Supported Agriculture group has about 100 members at present and more expected. Local pickup points include the Saturday Winter Park Farmers’ Market and at Swine & Sons in Winter Park on Wednesdays, and costs between $26 and $49 a share. Included in Frog Song’s offerings are pork shares—an investment in organic, pasture- raised pork by the chop, sausage and cut, from 15 pounds to an entire 250-pound hog. And they’re moving into the super-hot home delivery business in a down-home, CSA kind of way. Their produce can be ordered directly via the website and sent to a pickup point or shipped overnight.
“Farming makes you feel old fast,” the mother of two says. They sell at six markets a week, and supply restaurants such as Luma on Park and Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, along with Fresh Point distributors and Chamberlin’s Market.
“This is the most important thing I can do,” she says. “It’s a life’s work.”
Bitter agrees. “I can’t think of another thing that’s as meaningful,” he says. He is a USDA organic inspector for farms and processing facilities, and an expert in the esoteric field of soil judging (“He’s called ‘The Dirt King,’” says Van Scoik).
He invokes the phrase “farm to fable,” citing instances of processors filling crates labeled conventional and organic with the same produce. It echoes the title of a 2016 investigation by Tampa Bay Times writer Laura Reiley into the legitimacy of local and organic claims on Tampa area menus. The blatantly deceptive results shook the local food community, cracking open the falsehoods of many farm-to-table claims.
Bitter has seen it first hand, and suggests everyone question … everything. “Eat as close to source as possible,” he says. “Ask your farmer, your chef, your supermarket. People who care about how the food tastes will serve you good food.”
frogsongorganics.com; 4317 NE US Hwy. 301 Hawthorne; (352) 468-3816
Sugar Top Farms
High on the Lake Wales Ridge that spines through Central Florida, a new breed of farmer is replacing the long-vacant citrus groves that once filled the air with the scent of orange blossoms. From the front yard of Sugar Top Farms, there’s an egg farm down the road and Uncle Matt’s Organic orange grove just a few fields away.
Sugar Top isn’t a fabled “century farm,” held by one family for more than 100 years. Their landholding can be measured in months.
Jordan Cooper and Jessica Custer met at UCF: she on a political science track; he in pre-law. They got a taste for growing things by tending a third of an acre in Ft. Lauderdale while slogging through corporate America, and a lecture at East End Market by farming lifestyle pioneer Jean-Martin Fortier (“We drove up from Ft. Lauderdale to see him”) exposed Cooper and Custer to the concepts of microfarming and efficient practices. It inspired them to think, “We can do this.”
Custer, talking while holding a bolted head of rapini, its tiny yellow flowers bright in the morning sun, says that everything they do is a learning experience. “We have no agricultural education, but we’re in our second season.”
The geological fault “mountain” they live on (312 feet above sea level) provides a rich clay base unusual for beach-sand-filled Florida. Sweet potatoes and their greens, Florida onions, the highly underrated Seminole pumpkin and deep scarlet okra grow on the 2½-acre farm. Pea shoots, radishes, collards, tomatoes, micro- and macro-greens and new breeds of compact lettuce fill the 150-foot-long beds and tall polytunnels. “In full season we can harvest 100 pounds of squash every three days,” says Custer.
“It’s not quite urban farming,” Cooper says, “not big enough for traditional methods. We’re a ’tween farm. It’s a way for us to save the planet by organic farming, a backlash from the corporate life, which it turns out we hated. A way for us to have a happy, healthy life.”
And a way to make use of Internet research and new tech. A sleek Italian walk-behind tractor just straddles the 30-inch rows, a South Korean seed sower handles tiny carrot seeds and a macramé- powered greens harvester invented by a 15-year-old farmer in Tennessee makes short work of a crop of salad greens. And sweat, lots of it.
Sugar Top became a presence at the Winter Park Farmers’ Market this past December, doubling its organic and local farm offerings, along with the Mount Dora Village market on Sundays. They supply Pisces Rising in Mount Dora and Smiling Bison in Sanford. The website offers an ordering system for pickup at market or the farm.
There’s still the wonder of this committed life in Custer’s voice. “It’s amazing to realize,” she says, “that this row of vegetables growing in front of me came from a bunch of seeds I held in my hand. And if nothing else, you can always eat at the end of the day.”
sugartopfarms.com; 13350 Sugarloaf Court, Clermont; (954) 234-9621