Homegrown Passion

Ten years ago, no one would have called Jacksonville 
a garden city. But if the growing number of “slow food” 
or “farm-to-table” restaurants, community gardens, farms and farmers markets is any indication, the local food culture has grown deep roots. More Northeast Floridians want food that doesn’t come in a box, bag or can or from a greasy drive-thru. They’re hungry for food that is fresh, sustainable and wasn’t shipped thousands of miles. 
A crop of locals are putting their minds to work and their hands in the earth to feed the demand.

One Spark, the crowd-funding competition for inventors, innovators and idea-makers, attracted many agriculturally based projects, representing a cross-section of the local food movement. Among those were two groups that up-cycled shipping containers into high-yield grow houses using advanced technologies (Apod Project and Urban Container Farm), two groups committed to creating and inspiring permacultures (The Food Park Project and Fertile Earth Farms), a woman who wants to encourage the community to become involved in gardening by bringing in a well-known motivational speaker (Growing Power with Will Allen), a farm run by a charitable organization that feeds and educates poor and disadvantaged people (White Harvest Farms), and a young woman looking to become a first-generation farmer (Nubian Falls Farm). If the results are any indication — six agriculturally based projects placed in the top 40 in One Spark — the region is ready to embrace the changes they envision.

Though the entries were as diverse as the people involved, all are motivated by similar concerns related to the general population’s health and well-being. Several mentioned a distrust of agricultural giants like Monsanto (which ironically calls itself “a sustainable agricultural company”), Cargill, Tyson and others. The effects of consuming GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is a common concern.
“One of the biggest problems in our food source, in my opinion, is the GMO seeds, and they’re not even labeling the foods so we don’t have a choice,” said Andrea B. Shaw, co-founder of Urban Container Farm.

Others cited fears of ingesting untold types and levels of pesticides, particularly from produce grown in countries where FDA rules don’t apply. (Fun/scary fact from the EPA: Washing fruits and vegetables reduces but does not remove pesticides.)

But don’t call them trendy. Many involved with the projects pointed out that the locally sourced, homegrown food movement isn’t a new idea but a return to an older, and better, dietary life. Luke Watkins is a fifth-generation farmer and president of Black Hog Farm, which has grown exponentially since opening in 2007, from 15 acres to around 200.

“When we go back not even 50 years ago, it was like this. People relied on their local farmers market, their local community, to grow the produce that they ate,” Watkins said.

What the evolving local food culture reflects is a shift in the national consciousness. People have finally realized that it is not healthy to subsist on meats, simple starches and sugars with the occasional green thing thrown in (and probably soaked in fats and salt). Today’s food consumers are asking questions that make sense. How can bread have a shelf life of four weeks? (Preservatives.) Why don’t those apples ever rot? (Irradiation.) And why are we buying eggs from Iowa when chickens can grow anywhere? (Except residential Jacksonville, unless the City Council approves a proposed measure to allow backyard chickens.)

“People are becoming way better educated and are understanding the difference between a tomato they can buy in a supermarket in December and the tomato they can grow in season in their yard,” said Nick Zimmer, the head grower at Trad’s Garden Center.

Sandy Polletta, owner/operator of Edgewood Bakery, has been buying local since she and her husband bought the business 22 years ago. As locally sourced products have become increasingly available, Polletta has been able to add to the variety of fruits, vegetables, honey, nuts, eggs and seafood (depending on seasonal availability) she buys from local vendors. And she said her customers notice.

“People ask [where the food came from] a lot more than they used to,” Polletta said. “People are a lot more conscious about different things. They’re conscious about gluten and GMO.”

As concerns over food sources have grown, the local food economy has started to change. Farmers markets that require vendors to carry a large majority of items from local or regional sources, like Beaches Green Market and Riverside Arts Market (RAM), opened to great success. Beaches Green Market has tripled its clientele since 2009.

“People come here to do their grocery shopping,” said Devon Ritch, who runs the Beaches Local Food Network, which includes the Beaches Green Market and adjacent community garden.

Farms like Black Hog, KYV and others began offering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a system that lets customers subscribe to a farm in exchange for home delivery of produce, or pick up at a designated location. (Black Hog has its own trademarked version, “Farm to Door.”)

Community gardens started appearing across the city. Mary Puckett, Urban Gardening Program Coordinator at the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences extension office (IFAS), said that in the spring of 2008, attendance at her gardening classes jumped from fewer than 20 to as many as 66 and has remained consistent over the past several years.

“I’m the pop star now,” Puckett joked.

Slow Food First Coast, founded by Richard Villadóniga in 2007 after a nationwide culinary tour of endangered foods left him jealous of other cities’ food cultures, has been busily certifying restaurants, markets and others with the popular and increasingly coveted “Snail of Approval” for making an effort to use local and sustainable sources. Currently, 81 local food and beverage businesses — including farms, restaurants, farmers markets, breweries and others — have received the honor, 17 in the past year.

And while much progress has been made, those who organized the agriculturally based projects in One Spark believe that it isn’t enough.

The Food Park Project and Fertile Earth Farms aspire to transform the landscape of the city with permacultures — agricultural systems that integrate human activity with natural surroundings to create efficient, self-sustaining ecosystems. After three to five years, permacultures essentially take care of themselves.

“[Left alone] after a few years, a garden will become grass again. Leave a permaculture site and it will continue growing,” said Valerie Herrmann, co-founder of The Food Park Project, which placed in the top 10 at One Spark.

Herrmann, who spent five years studying permaculture in Hawaii, and co-founder Eli Bajalia envision a network of permaculture “food parks” in the region rather than empty spaces and useless landscaping. Bajalia pointed out that the technique has been successfully used in Havana, Cuba, communities in Africa and other areas, including a 2,000-year-old permaculture discovered a few years ago in Morocco.

On June 1, Fertile Earth Farms broke ground on its first permaculture on Edgewood Avenue. The site, which straddles two large areas the Economic Research Service (ERS), U.S., Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food Access Research Atlas designate as food deserts, will benefit two adjacent low-income retirement facilities, the Florida Christian Apartments and Sundale Manor, as well as the surrounding neighborhoods. The USDA defines food deserts as areas where access to healthful food is limited by such factors as economics, proximity to supermarkets and percentage of the population without a working vehicle.

Nearly 40 people volunteered at the Edgewood Garden groundbreaking, including Emily Dale, an 87-year-old resident of the community. After moving in a year ago, Dale missed growing vegetables until she found an abandoned greenhouse and started putting it back together, soon joined by fellow resident Michael Cox. Still, they needed space. Then, last year, she met Jon Jessup, Fertile Earth Farms chief of operations, at an organic gardening workshop, and together they came up with the idea to start the organization’s first permaculture in the lot between the facilities. After getting approval from Florida Christian Center, which owns the lot between the apartments, they drew up plans, scraped together donations and volunteers, and set to work in the blazing June sun. Cox, a talented gardener who grew up on a farm and suffered from heart failure just six weeks before the groundbreaking, pitched in.

“I need the work, need to get out of the chair,” Cox said.

“There’s no question about it, if I could eat healthier by cooking fresh food, I would,” said resident Rick Murray, watching the enthusiastic volunteers’ rapid progress. As of June 17, phase one was completed.

Though permaculture advocates believe in their mission and its potential to feed the city, others don’t think permacultures will make a measurable difference for more than a handful of individuals.

“A food park, as beautiful an idea as it is, is more of a museum thing. It is not a practical solution,” said Jennifer Sanders, who participated in One Spark (Growing Power with Will Allen) and has her own local market garden.
Jonathon Fletcher, co-founder of Apod Project, agreed.

“I’m a big fan of permaculture, but I don’t think permaculture is going to save the world. It’s not a knock on permaculture; it’s a knock on corporate agriculture. … I love that stuff, but I don’t think it’s going to produce enough food for the population we have or the population that we are going to have in 20 years,” Fletcher said.

Sanders and Fletcher aren’t discouraging anyone from starting a permaculture nor are they criticizing the concept; rather, they believe a long-term solution to feed the world’s billions, or even metropolitan Jacksonville’s million, is going to be found through sustainable farming techniques that can be implemented on a mass scale and — also important — for a profit. To create a sustainable food source, they said, the solution to the world’s food and environmental problems must function within the economic system rather than apart from it.

Both of the shipping container up-cyclers, Apod Project and Urban Container Farm, which have built out fully functional grow houses using aquaponics and hydroponics, respectively, intend to sell the containers commercially and for profit. (Apod also envisions a nonprofit side to the business.)

Fletcher said the goal for Apod Project is to make sustainability profitable.

“We want to make sustainability not just a feel-good for the environment,” Fletcher said. “That’s the way it will help the planet. Not because it’s mandated, or it makes you feel good.”

“We absolutely want to target this to entrepreneurs and people that want to
run a business,” said Shaw of Urban Container Farm. “We want to do something that’s good for everything, but we also want this to be profitable.”

Apod Project might be one step closer to achieving that goal. A prominent local investor (who wishes to remain unnamed) approached them after One Spark and has initiated plans to provide funding.

No one is discouraging altruistic methods of feeding the people who live in food deserts (though “nutrition deserts” is a more accurate term). It’s a well-known but frequently overblown fact that organic produce and locally sourced agricultural products tend to cost more than the potentially pesticide-and-chemical-fertilizer-laden GMO items discounted in the grocery store.

“I can’t produce a chicken for a dollar,” said Watkins of Black Hog Farm. “There’s added costs to it, but that’s what it costs to have a true meal, true food, that isn’t preserved or shipped across the ocean.”

Fletcher said his friends, like many, jokingly refer to natural supermarket giant Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck.” CBS News reported in 2009 that organic foods can cost up to 30 percent more. It’s difficult to place a dollar amount on a person’s health and well-being. While some can afford to pay a few dollars more, for others, a few dollars more is the difference between affording food and other necessities.

Fertile Earth Farms, White Harvest Farms, Second Harvest, The Food Park Project and others want to close the economic gap between the affluent farmers market shoppers and CSA subscribers and the thousands (62,000, according to The Florida Times-Union) of Northeast Floridians with little or no access to healthful, nutritious foods.

White Harvest Farms, begun this past winter by Clara White Mission in the Moncrief neighborhood, has plans to start a farmers market where customers can use SNAP cards to buy the farm’s produce at a reduced rate. There are farmers markets that already accept SNAP cards for payment, including Lincolnville Farmers Market in St. Augustine and at least two booths at Jacksonville Farmers Market.

“The area of town it’s in has been deemed a food desert, so we really saw a need to go in there and provide something to the community,” said Nichole Errington, the mission’s director of marketing and community liaison. “Children growing up in the community don’t understand healthy food options and how it will affect their overall well-being.”

Produce from the farm is already a popular feature at the weekly luncheons prepared and served by the mission’s culinary students. Student Donyalle Jackson once convinced a convenience store owner in her neighborhood (a food desert) to carry fresh produce. The items, she said, were more expensive than the meat. Jackson, who at one time weighed nearly 300 pounds, said she and her children have learned to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables.

“I eat different now, healthier,” she said. “We’re breaking generational curses.”
Fellow student Sylethia Felder said the school’s focus on fresh food taught her how to eat better.

“When I shop at home, I can’t help but buy fresh because that’s what I’m used to now,” she said.

Second Harvest North Florida, which distributes food to hungry and food-insecure people in the region, is working to help residents start community gardens. Community Gardens Program Manager Katie L. Salz, a founder of Arlington Community Gardens, said she has faith in the impact of community gardens.

“This is something the community needs, not what we think they want,” she said. “Community gardens are one spoke of a sustainable food system.” Salz is also working to organize the community gardens into a network.

Some wonder, however, if the revitalized interest in gardening is just another fad. Past resurgences in gardening faded away when the economy improved or the political climate changed. During World War II, the U.S. government encouraged Americans to plant “Victory Gardens” to free up agricultural products to feed soldiers. After the recession in the 1970s, gardening again increased. Puckett said that in 1978, IFAS managed 15 gardens; that number increased to 33 in 1985, facilitated by government funding. When funding dried up in 1994, the total count immediately dropped to 22.

It is true that the recent increase in gardening came on the heels of another recession. According to the National Gardening Association 2009 Report, when the Great Recession culminated between 2008 and 2009, food gardening households increased almost 20 percent, from 36 million to 49 million.

But if the resurgence in locally grown foods was purely a product of the recession, people’s interest should diminish as the economy improves. Instead, it’s gaining traction.

Zimmer said that in the past five years, Trad’s has increased the space dedicated to edibles tenfold; profits from edibles have increased fivefold.

A recent survey by Green America, Eco Ventures International and the Association for Enterprise Opportunity found that in the past 10 years, the organic food market has increased by 238 percent, while the non-organic market has expanded only 33 percent.

Puckett said that in 2004, she managed five community gardens. Today, she works with 20. Friends of Northeast Florida Community Gardens lists nearly 80 local community gardens with several more breaking ground soon, and those are just the ones that are registered with the organization.

Slow Food First Coast has just awarded a grant to its 25th school garden. Jacksonville-Duval Agricultural Council reports that the agricultural and natural resources industries in Duval County, which include more than 300 small farms that occupy more than 25,000 acres, annually contribute more than $2 billion to the local economy. IFAS estimated that local community gardeners saved more than $2 million by growing their own food in 2012.

The difference between the recent resurgence in local food sources and those of the past is simple: This time, people are more motivated by health than economics. While 14 percent of those surveyed for the National Gardening Association Report did say the recession motivated them to start growing their own vegetables, far more were growing their own food because they know it is safe (48 percent), tastes better (58 percent), and is higher quality (51 percent) than typical grocery store fare.

But it’s not all peace, love and organic broccoli. Gardening is hard work; managing a community garden can be a full-time job. Without a lot of work, any gardening project can easily fail.

Ritch of Beaches Local Food Network said she spends about 30 hours a week keeping things running smoothly. Puckett pointed to Ritch’s work and that of her predecessors as an ideal model for people who want to start a community garden. Before approaching any city council for permission to use the land, they worked with IFAS and drew up complete, organized plans outlining their intentions.

“One of the experiences that we have is that some of the new groups may not understand that unless there’s accountability, a lot of times they do fail,” Puckett said. “Some people do romance it a bit.”

With the permacultures, the up-cycled shipping container farms, the community gardens, the farmers markets, the local farmers and the home gardeners, it may seem as if the field is overcrowded and competitive, if not cutthroat. Not so, Sanders said.

“The climate here is cooperative. On an individual basis, we work so hard that, at first, it seems like you’ve got some secret to protect. That’s bullshit. You couldn’t feed these million people if you tried,” she said.

And that’s all these groups and others are trying to do. If they have their way, Jacksonville could very well become known as the Garden City. After all, with sandy soil an easy fix and plenty of sunshine and rainfall, the region is a gardener’s dream. And what better way to unite the many neighborhoods of Northeast Florida than through food?

“Regardless of politics or beliefs,” Salz said, “we all need to eat.”