Playing in the Dirt

Friday, 20 March 2009 16:28

 

Organic food is a shared effort at community farm
By Juliana A. Torres
Staff Writer
Kneeling among rows of green vegetables and herbs, Natalie Harley, of Kissimmee, pushed tiny sugarsnap pea seeds into the dark, rich soil of a garden supported by a whole community of people.
“I love it,” Harley said. “I’m learning a lot. It enables me to have food out of a garden that I wouldn’t normally buy.”
The eventual sugarsnap pea plants, planted close together, aren’t for human consumption, but rather for the deer, who seem to like the sweet vegetable, in hopes that they’ll stay away from the rest of the of crops.
It’s one of the hazards the community must deal with in their new garden. A group of 28 shareholders have bought into a season of fresh produce from this small farm – accepting all successes and setbacks associated with growing organic produce – in a concept called community-supported agriculture. The garden takes up about a quarter-acre behind a horse farm on the property three miles east of St. Cloud, owned by Allan and Nancy Pratt.
The shareholders help pay for the costs of seeds, preparation and maintenance of the garden at the beginning of the season and take away their portion of whatever is harvested once a week. The upfront cost depends on the size of their share and whether or not they want to help in the weekly upkeep.
“Everybody buys in. They all by into all the progress and all the losses,” Nancy Pratt, who owns the property, said. “We lost all tomato plants to frost. So no tomatoes this year, but we learn from that.”
Additionally, all the food grown in the garden is done so organically. They use compost from the farm, worked the soil with organic commercial products, used fish emulsion to fertilize the soil and picked off harmful bugs by hand, dusting the plants with an organic product if the pests get too numerous.
Long strips of plastic tablecloth blowing in the wind discourage deer from their produce. If that doesn’t work, then hopefully there’s the offering of sugarsnap peas, which already have proven to be a favorite this year.
“Our standards are to be as natural and sustainable to the environment that we can be,” Pratt said.
The community-supported farm on her property was started in January last year after the Pratt family went looking for organic, locally grown produce in Osceola County. They were mostly unsuccessful, finding only one person who offered St. Cloud-grown honey, and was about to move out of state.
“That’s why we decided: OK, we’re just going to start our own,” Nancy Pratt said.
They moved the white picket fence enclosing the property’s horses an acre back to try their hand in farming. Pratt enlisted the help of Morgan Ohland, who had been a partner in a community-supported garden in Brevard County that was shutting down. With her experience and advice along the way, the first season – supported by just 10 shareholders – was a success, Pratt said.
“Everybody was so pleased with the produce,” she said. “It’s like a work of art when you get home and lay it all out. It was just brilliant.”
The creativity and collaboration as a community involved in the garden made the extra effort producing the organic foods worth it.
“That’s what keeps the shareholders coming back, because it’s hard work in this heat,” she said.
This season, the community planted arugula, rapini, asian greens, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, fennel, kale, eggplant, beans, carrots and heirloom tomatoes as well as thyme, lavender, sage and basil. The different crops are planted in a staggering schedule, so something is always being harvested. The farmers have to gauge how much of each should be planted.
“It’s a real balancing act. You want to have enough for everyone but don’t want to have an abundance of one thing,” Ohland says.
One year, there was an abundance of rapini – which Ohland learned grows well in the Florida climate – so much so that the shareholders begged her not to plant any more the following season.
This year, kale has been in abundance so far. Shareholders pass different recipes to keep the vegetable. That’s part of the challenge, eating what is grown, Ohland said. Most people who decide not to buy into the next season, realize that community-supported gardening just doesn’t fit into their lifestyle, because they’re not really cooks or don’t know what to do with the produce they receive, which tends to be very different than that found in the supermarket.
One share is enough for a family of four; a half-share enough for two. Shareholders pay less if they agree to help weed, plant and upkeep the garden about for six hours per week. Seven of the shareholders this year are working shares.
Working shareholders arrive early in the morning on Saturdays to harvest whatever is ripe and sort it in plastic bins, one for each share. Before everyone else arrives to pick up their bins, the group gathers to pray, giving thanks for fruit of the labor.
“Because we all know how hard it is to grow a garden, we give full credit to God,” Pratt said.
Sometimes citrus from a local grove supplement the produce and often hand stone-ground wheat bread and local marmalade is available for purchase. Pratt hopes the small community’s efforts will eventually create a whole market of various locally produced foodstuffs that residents can all share.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Pratt says, “It’s very therapeutic to be out here, playing in the dirt.”
The current season ends in the first week of June. The quarter-acre of garden space can only support the community’s current number of shares, but Pratt says she’d like to see more community-supported gardens elsewhere, perhaps in an empty lot in a neighborhood that supports it.
To find out more information or to be added to the waiting list for the upcoming season, contact Nancy Pratt with the form found on this link: https://osceolacsa.com/location/. You’ll find it towards the bottom of the page.

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