The Slow Farm Resurgence in Florida

This story appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by JIMMY SHERFEY | Photography by NATE ROBINSON 

In an age conducted online, more are feeling that connection to something tangible wither away, are left pining for a lifestyle reminiscent of a couple generations back — one where we sit down to a meal sans mobile, enjoy food grown in our backyards and share stories a little more polished and less crude than the ones scrolling down a virtual feed. In the heart of Florida, the oft-maligned state regarded by many as little more than a spring break destination if not a major hub for America’s crazy altogether, some young souls spearhead this unlikely but growing down-to-earth movement.

Three farms in Alachua County surrounding Gainesville and the University of Florida have found their livelihoods in the land. All breaking ground within the past five years, they’ve ditched monoculture for a more diverse crop base, working to gain a piece of the market currently monopolized by specialized producers operating on massive scales.

Noah Shitama’s Swallowtail Farm is one of them. After studying religion at Emory University in Atlanta, like many fresh out of college, he was in search of his identity and a feeling of relevance. He speaks in a soft, measured tone pulled forward by a deep, Southern twang. “I was itching to do something practical,” Shitama recalls. “So I kind of reduced it to food and shelter, and resolved to pursue some capability and confidence.” This pursuit started with several years in construction. After building, he worked under a farm owner, learning the keys to developing a robust Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Drawn in by the neverending process of farm management, he started his own farm in collaboration with his wife, Emily Eckhardt. The first day of tilling the soil of his new land, he noticed a somewhat rare sight — a flock of Swallow-tailed Kite birds surveying the farm, likely on break from a long migratory haul. “They’ll travel a dozen together for the longest distance and then break out on their own or in pairs,” Shitama explains. “I felt like that was it: I’ll take an easy sign as a sign.” 

The concept of Community Supported Agriculture — paying for a farm’s produce typically before it is harvested — has proven huge for producers looking to shift the paradigm back to local. Swallowtail’s efforts to diversify their catalogue could gain a lot of ground in the hearts and minds of consumers that view small farmers as little more than their go-to source for kale.

About an hour southeast of Swallowtail, Frog Song Organics rotates 10 acres of vegetables on 21 acres of farmland, adjacent to U.S. Highway 301. The entrance features a billboard depicting a small army of cartoon frogs working to bring in the harvest. Owner John Bitter talks in smiling tones, often tempering the raw facts of farm life with a chuckle. He worked with Amy Van Scoik on her first vegetable farm around the time they were finishing up school at UF (they are now a husband-and-wife duo). Since then, they’ve traveled together expanding their knowledge of sustainable agriculture. Spending time in Mexico, they found inspiration for their farming ethos as well as their operation’s name. “We love frogs,” Bitter says. “All throughout Mexico they’re known as an amulet for protection of health. Frogs are like the canary in the coal mine for chemical contamination.”

Since inputs harmful to the soil and wildlife are verboten on his farm and all farmers are at the mercy of weather, abundant produce is not a guarantee. The plants need a close eye, as does the business side. The farm relies substantially on Community Supported Agriculture to grow, ensuring the loss from waste is minimal. Even in winter, when cold weather decreases the selection of produce available, Frog Song still has a robust CSA bushel featuring Tokyo turnips, arugula, mustard greens, Napa cabbage, sweet potatoes, sunchokes, broccoli and mizuna (seven to nine items each week).

A smaller operation closer to Gainesville proper, Siembra Farm, has just begun the organic certification process that Frog Song achieved in 2012. Starting with a walk-behind tractor and a dozen CSA members, husband-and-wife farm owners Cody and Veronica (who plan to adopt “Siembra” as their surname) employ a small staff and sell weekly vegetable packages along a sliding scale from $25-35. “It’s just up to the consumer what they pay,” Cody says, speaking in the gentle bends of a beachy South Florida accent. “A lot of people are happy to pay $35, especially after they’ve gotten the basket and they’re like, ‘Hell yeah.’ There’s no pressure though, we have a lot of single moms and students, so with them it’s like, ‘Pay $25.’”

Behind gorgeous rows of sprouting vegetable plants, before a barn outfitted with solar-panel roofing, an adopted wild boar dubbed “Pee-wee” runs alongside Cody as he loads up the truck for the night’s market. On the fringe of the surrounding forest, a young lady practices aerial silk acrobatics, dangling 20 feet above the ground from the branch of a sturdy live oak. Now in its fourth season, Siembra has used their CSA program to increase production every year according to demand. “Our market table sales and restaurant sales have grown steadily, but the CSA is still our bread-and-butter, what’s made it possible to help us grow and learn as a farm,” Cody says.

Walking a different path than most monoculture producers, the paychecks for small, independent farmers are not guaranteed, requiring a measured approach when scaling up operations. In the southeastern United States, Alachua County is one of the northernmost places fruits and vegetables grow on a commercial scale year-round. To avoid damages caused by inclement weather, a sustainable producer will have to give a variety of crops tender loving care, all while being as resourceful as possible.

Climate problems — of both the predictable and erratic varieties — add another layer of challenges to farming. “We got down to 20 degrees in early November and that’s like a couple thousand dollars gone overnight,” Cody says, adding that frost cloth placement and removal at Siembra can mean 10 hours of labor for the farm’s small staff. Still, they run a frugal operation, well-versed in cost-cutting measures. Siembra takes advantage of both the ample Florida sun and Gainesville’s utility incentive program, sending energy collected from their barn roof solar panels back into the grid. Because of solar feed-in tariffs, they are reimbursed more than the cost of conventional energy. 

Other elements in abundance can be harmful — not the least of which is the Florida rain. Small farms around Gainesville have to avoid becoming a swamp with clever irrigation practices. At Frog Song, Bitter digs out pathways to channel excess rainwater away from vulnerable planting beds.

“When it just rained 3 inches and you don’t have any water stuck in these fur- rows you’re like, ‘Aw hell yeah,’” he says laughing. “The plants are happy; I’m happy. When I was a kid I used to play in the dirt and mud and get the water to run down the driveway. It really is the same thing on a larger level. I’ve just got cooler toys now.”

Just as the rain is a double-edged sword, the same abundant sunshine, mentioned as a valuable source of energy for plants and now the power grid, can be a curse if not dealt with properly. With the potential to quite literally bake the land, Bitter covers topsoil with hay mulch beds to keep the ground moist and full of nutrients. He does this with strawberries as well, a crop requiring special attention. In addition to keeping the plants well-nourished, Bitter must plan against potential pests waiting in the soil, eager to take advantage of a vulnerable organic farm. In December, he grows onions amidst the strawberry plants, because the sun will release oils in the leaves of sprouted onions causing stress for any potential pests and borers looking to feast on young berries. This type of symbiotic play cuts down on the need for toxic, synthetic spray applications.

At Swallowtail, Eckhardt cleverly introduced the practice of rotational grazing, setting up temporary fencing to pin free-range chickens up over the sections of the farm earmarked for growing. Recently they planted the beginnings of a peach orchard, where a flock of chickens cultivated the ground for several months. Bees are kept around to pollinate the flowers of fruiting plants. Pigs are sent to harvested sweet potato fields to eat leftovers and replenish the soil.

“Same thing with the cows,” Shitama says. “We want their milk, but we also want them shitting over everything be- cause it’s wonderful for life.”

Shitima wants their whole-diet CSA to demonstrate what a piece of land can do when it’s not subject to growing a single crop en masse. “It represents the fruits of a more whole, sustaining system, where there are cows, pigs, chickens and bees, and those things are being used as productive creatures — just like us but in a different way.” With all the moving pieces, it keeps the farm on its toes, but that doesn’t mean Swallowtail is a stressful environment. “Even during the day when we’re busting it, there is camaraderie and enjoyment,” Shitama says. “I feel like a lot of the relaxing is in the doing.”

At Frog Song, the cowbell, vigorously rung by Van Scoik at lunch, signals an equally brisk working environment that is no less pleasant. The work is outdoors, and the packing facility is under the cover of a clear span roof which provides ample shade for produce and producers alike. “It’s got a deck upstairs for drinking,” Bitter says. “It’s the best use we’ve found for that deck. We store stuff there, of course, but it’s a really good spot to enjoy a beer.” 

Despite the hard work, farmers still know how to have a good time. Frog Song often invites the community to their property for potluck meals. Swallowtail’s monthly farm dinners bring acclaimed chefs to their grounds for a picturesque slow dinner, even offering a private bed-and-breakfast on their 30-acre property. Siembra Farm, too, wants to cultivate an element of leisure on-site, clueing visitors in on the fruits of a slower lifestyle. “It would be nice to do a farm-to-fork or maybe a dance party out here — like a farm-to-funk,” Cody says. (Siembra Farm is, in part, named after the 1978 salsa al- bum by Willie Colón & Rubén Blades.)

If a dance party on a farm sounds too surreal, maybe just start by paying a visit to your local farmers market. Meet the people who grow your food and ask them what’s in season. They are not just friendly neighbors; they are pioneers re-blazing the trails back to our agricultural roots. To see their sincerity is to know that quality food is more than just a trend.

“The demand for this stuff is not going away,” Bitter says, gesturing towards several newly planted rows of greens at Frog Song. “We’ve grown so much when the rest of the economy has said, ‘We can’t do anything.’ More people every day are waking up to what is good food. That’s why we do this: to bring good food to people.” 

Future CSA produce waiting to be planted at Swallotail Farm. 

Future CSA produce waiting to be planted at Swallotail Farm. 

Planted rows at Frog Song Organics.

Planted rows at Frog Song Organics.

Pee-wee, the wild boar adopted by Cody and Veronica of Siembra Farms. 

Pee-wee, the wild boar adopted by Cody and Veronica of Siembra Farms. 

Free-range chickens grazing on soon-to-be planted ground at Swallowtail Farm. 

Free-range chickens grazing on soon-to-be planted ground at Swallowtail Farm. 

Frog Song Organics promoting their CSA program at the St. Augustine Old City Farmers Market. 

Frog Song Organics promoting their CSA program at the St. Augustine Old City Farmers Market.