and Tampa Bay farmers make an odd couple: farmers pushing fruits and vegetables from a “kiosk” at the mall. But on the first Saturday of each month, local organic farmers line Paseo Drive, the mall’s main drag, selling their harvest to patrons stuffing fresh-picked cucumbers into a Macy’s bag.
, the mall’s most active Facebook promotion, helps drive a local food movement gaining traction not only in the Tampa Bay area, but the entire country, as well. Farming has made a comeback, led by industry veterans growing with more sustainable methods, and backyard “locavores” feeding their families from a small pile of dirt and homemade compost.
A recent Saturday at the mall featured both.
Why Proponents Consider Local Food to Be Better
According to Fresh Market’s buyers and sellers, closing the gap from farm to table benefits the environment, your health and Tampa’s economy.
“People are becoming more aware … more markets, more functions. It’s good to know it’s grown locally and eaten locally,” said Jeff Speicher of Glory Road Gardens in Lutz. Speicher distributes certified-natural microgreens to approximately 18 restaurants throughout the Tampa region.
Farmers markets have sprouted up in Hyde Park, Seminole Heights and Sun City Center. Backyard growers are getting into one of the world’s oldest professions, enjoying both the health and budget benefits of “growing your own.” Restaurants are using local food for smart marketing and what they swear are tastier dishes.
Co-ops and urban farms expand the farm-to-table movement with reach and awareness. Hydroponic growing systems and EarthBox kits eliminate real estate requirements. Blogs and YouTube how-to videos share growing secrets.
Farming has never been this fun.
Keeping it local squeezes the supply chain, reducing “food miles” and greenhouse gases while delivering fresher products. Locavores boost the bottom line, too. Grow it in Tampa, eat it in Tampa, the revenues stay at home, proponents say.
Nationally, corporate giants like Walmart and Sysco are tweaking their business models, test marketing and contracting with local food suppliers. Walmart and Sysco save money. Consumers are said to get a better product. People want to know where their food is coming from.
Seasonal issues aside, it might make you question buying South African oranges in Florida.
Get to Know Your Grower
“You know who your dentist is. You know who your doctor is. Know who your farmer is,” said Terri Parke of Parke Family HydroFarms in Dover.
Parke Family got out of the dirt in 2004, now growing exclusively through a vertical hydroponic system that cut out bugs, pesticides and land. They have also cut out the middleman, selling direct at farmers markets and allowing customers to pick their own produce straight off the farm.
“Most of the people that buy from us take the food directly home to their family,” said Parke.
Fresh Market loosely resembles a trade show at the Tampa Convention Center: products, greetings, networking and education – lots of education. Customers stay busy eyeing the merchandise while asking questions. Wesley Chapel’s Magnolia Organics plans to offer hands-on training out on the farm.
“This season we’re starting to do monthly seminars on the farm to educate not only on organics, but sustainability as well,” said Cody Peat, handing out recipes for turning Magnolia Organic’s certified-organic zucchini into a gourmet dish.
Grow Your Own Food
Further down Paseo Drive, David Whitwam teaches a different class, giving passionate lectures on the art and science of getting dirty in your own backyard farm.
Part horticulturist, part entertainer, Whitwam, owner of Whitwam Organics in Seminole Heights, provides all the ingredients to grow your own food: consultation, organic fertilizers and, if necessary, his own sweat. He concedes farming is not easy or glamorous – especially in Tampa’s fickle soil - but maintains most amateurs are barely missing on their swings to a plentiful harvest.
“Usually a gardener has most of the pieces of the puzzle, but they are missing one or two pieces. Or, they’re putting the pieces together in the wrong order,” said Whitwam.
He points to Tampa’s funky climate zone to illustrate the trial and error that can be avoided with a good plan. “We grow year-round in Florida. It just depends on what you can grow,” said Whitwam. Geographic location is vital, too. “A guy in Seminole Heights may not be able to grow what someone in New Tampa can grow.”
Whitwam’s enthusiasm is infectious. He makes you want to run home and plant something. And that is just it, the missing link. You have to start somewhere.
Whitwam grins and hammers home his key takeaway. “If you want to get into growing your own food, the only problem is not starting,” said Whitwam.
Todd Fleming of Tampa attests to the physical and spiritual benefits of do-it-yourself farming. Fleming, a recent transplant from Portland, Ore., roamed Fresh Market’s bounty as a consumer with a pedigree in urban farming.
“You’ll never have better tomatoes unless you grow them yourself.”
According to Fleming, digging in the dirt offers much more than fresh produce.
“It didn’t just feed my stomach, it fed my head,” he said.
It seems The Shops at Wiregrass has built Mother Nature’s food court.