Archive for the ‘people’ Category

Written by Sheryl Dutton
Photos courtesy of Sheryl Dutton

I came across a unique opportunity one day last spring, as I drove around Redland. I had been living in the area for roughly a year, dreaming of starting my own organic farm and homestead. Farming had been a hobby of mine for some time and although my projects had been confined to small plots, I was driven by big ideas. I wanted more experience, working with the land and learning how to turn my love of farming into a possible business. I had recently visited Robert Barnum of Possum Trot Farm to gather fruit and art supplies from his 40-acre grove of rare and useful trees. While I was there, I decided to ask Robert if he needed an apprentice or knew of any opportunities to learn more about farming. Luckily he said yes. He mentioned a New Farmer Apprenticeship Program offered by Florida International University’s Agroecology department, funded by a USDA grant. I got in touch with the program director and applied right away.

The New Farmer Apprenticeship Program included a variety of monthly workshops and 100 hours of field experience. I attended workshops on topics like beekeeping, laurel wilt disease detection, how to apply for farm loans, grants and more. I got to meet many young, prospective farmers with similar goals as mine and the same insatiable thirst for knowledge. For my fieldwork I chose to go to Bee Heaven and Possum Trot, both established Redland farms within 5 miles of my home.

Sheryl and her two boys, attending Farm Day 2013, at Bee Heaven Farm.

Sheryl and her two boys, attending Farm Day 2013, at Bee Heaven Farm.

I started out with Margie Pikarsky on her 5 acre certified organic Bee Heaven Farm. I had been a member of her highly recommended CSA program for about 4 years and had attended events there with my family. I was familiar with the farm and knew I had a lot to learn from Margie. We had spoken many times about our favorite plants, our adventures with chickens and other things when I’d pick up my produce every Saturday. I knew she ran a very organized and well-managed farm but I didn’t know exactly what was involved until I had the chance to work side by side with her and her staff. I got to experience part of the busy CSA season, how all the orders came in, were distributed and then prepared to take to market. Some days we’d work in the packinghouse and fill hundreds of orders, other days we’d work out in the field harvesting or preparing the beds for new crops. Everything about her farm is carefully planned out, solidified by many years of experience and held to a very high standard. I likened her operation to a well-oiled machine, always recalibrating to the whims of Mother Nature.

Sheryl, Robert and John

Sheryl, Robert and John

Then I switched gears, moving on to what would be an unforgettable experience at Possum Trot Farm with Robert Barnum. I had heard many stories about the 40-acre wonderland from friends of mine and after visiting a few times, my interest was piqued. Robert’s collection of rare, edible and useful tree species is quite special.

The mix of mature trees living there are the result of many decades of work, collecting, preserving, selecting and sometimes naming new varieties. He proudly refers to himself as a land steward of the many fruits, nuts, hardwoods, citrus and more that he has cared for throughout his life. For me and the other apprentices that worked there, Possum Trot was an ideal outdoor classroom and Robert’s unique approach to mentoring was a one of a kind experience. Each day was a new adventure. One day we’d be identifying trees, harvesting or cleaning up the nursery, another day we’d be attending an auction, repairing equipment or cooking up interesting meals in his kitchen. Every conversation was educational and I’d say that I definitely learned more than I bargained for!

Nursery maintenance, Possum Trot

Nursery maintenance, Possum Trot

The overall message I gleaned from my time at Bee Heaven and Possum Trot confirmed what I knew but in my hopeful naivety had not accepted. Farming for profit, no matter what angle you come at it, is hard work with unpredictable returns and a multitude of political obstacles to navigate. In my opinion farming has got to be one of the most underappreciated and underpaid professions out there. Don’t get me wrong, there are many successful farmers out there, making a living and making a difference. In no way do I mean to undermine them, but for the most part, the industrial food system (big agriculture) has stacked the odds against local, small farmers. In a way it has forced them to be more innovative. There is a growing trend to eat local and organic, to avoid GMOs and packaged foods. We’re getting back to the basics of fresh, nutrient rich foods like our great grandparents enjoyed. Our health as individuals and as a culture depends on it.

Beekeeping workshop

Beekeeping workshop

Maybe more importantly than the effect our food system has on people, are the long lasting, possibly irreversible effects that conventional farming practices are having on the environment. Small scale, intensive farming has been proven to be more sustainable over time when compared to conventional single crop farming. Widespread uses of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides have been described by many as an attack on the living world. Conventional farming practices not only pollute the air, water and soil but also pollute the bodies of all living things. Turning a blind eye is not an option.

I wasn’t able to complete my apprenticeship with FIU for personal reasons but I did greatly appreciate the chance to get a behind the scenes look at some of the farms and farmers I had come to admire over the years. The experience did however alter my plans of starting my own organic farm in Redland. After meeting some second-generation farmers in the area and hearing their stories of growing up in Homestead, I questioned whether it would be the best thing for my family. I had to ask myself, “Was farming the kind of future I wanted for my children? Was starting an organic farm a sound investment that I could manage with predictable returns?” My answer to both was an unfortunate no. I decided that I was content to be an avid collector of plants and trees, a small scale, backyard farmer and a supporter of local food. I get to work out my big ideas and make a positive impact in other ways.

View from Poindexter's tailgate

View from Poindexter’s tailgate

I feel like there is a lot of work to do in this area in what might be the most important shift of our generation: Transitioning from being mass consumers to abundant producers, reworking our value system into something that directly benefits us rather than distracts us, utilizing our land in ways that support our health and wellness without disrupting the ability of the natural world to support all life for generations to come. Like I said, big ideas and while we’re at it, why not reinvent what it means to be a farmer in a changing world. The New Farmer Apprenticeship position through FIU’s Agroecology Program addressed just that. It was a valuable experience for me that helped shape my future plans and solidify my understanding of the local food system where I live and beyond. All stereotypes aside, farmers have the job of feeding us all. It’s a big responsibility and they deserve our support! Eat up!

Sheryl Dutton

Sheryl Dutton

Sheryl Dutton currently lives in Miami with her family and works as a Permaculture Designer, specializing in the design and installation of tropical fruit groves, edible forest gardens and small kitchen gardens. Sheryl is the owner of Earthscape Art & Design and is available for consultations.


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This year’s GrowFest! debuts the Redland ART section. Applying the same criteria as for all GrowFest! vendors, art or photography by local artists is showcased, depicting local, edible or native plant, animal or local scenes, or incorporates locally-grown or native materials.

John DeFaro with Who is Nest wall assemblage 63rd All FL Juried Competition and Exhibition Boca Raton Museum of Art 2014

John DeFaro is a local artist who works with natural materials, royal poinciana seed pods one of his favorite objects. All pieces are for sale at GrowFest! 50% discount prices of $45 to $75 (signed by the artist), depending on size/detail. John will be at GrowFest! until 4 pm Saturday and until 3 pm Sunday.

In his own words:

detailAt first glance one quickly sees rich earth tones of cheery wood reds and mahogany browns hanging from copper wire. About the size of four or five hands, the forms floating are created primarily using Poinciana Tree Seed Pods; a signature material to John DeFaro’s new naturalist approach for his making of art assemblages and on site installations.

The Nightmare Catchers are smaller scaled found object, informal assemblages using wire, vintage electrical transistors, jewelry wire, plastic beads, and so on. These hanging intuitive sculptures are a deviation from the traditional Native American Dream Catchers in that they, fresh out of the artist studio ad hoc forms, are to be hung inside the home and dwellings where one might sleep. In addition to Catching, they Capture and Extinguish Nightmares FOREVER.

detail-2As part of the artist narrative, The Nightmare Catchers provide a complete monitoring of nightmares placed anywhere within the entire home. Simply the power of playful belief when and how artistic creation brings enjoyment and positive thinking. And simply an expression as an art form celebrating the re-purposing of Nature.

DeFaro’s better known large assemblages using the dried and hardened, oiled and protected pods, have garnered awards and exhibition participation such as an Artist Choice award at the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, SoBay Art Exhibit at the Deering Estate in Cutler, FL, Scope Art Fair, Art and Culture Center, Hollywood, FL, and most recently inclusion in the 63rd Annual Juried Competition and Exhibition / Boca Raton Museum, Florida.



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Mike the visiting farmer gets a visit from the Congressman. L to R: Mike, Margie Pikarsky, Joe Garcia, Mike Dill, Kevin Chambliss. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

Mike the visiting farmer gets a visit from the Congressman. L to R: Mike, Margie Pikarsky, Joe Garcia, Mike Dill, Kevin Chambliss. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

It’s not every day that a politician stops by Bee Heaven Farm. But back in January, on a gray drizzly afternoon, Congressman Joe Garcia and some of his staff came to pay a visit with farmer Margie Pikarsky, one of his constituents.

“He’s making a real point of talking to farmers,” Margie told me. “Finding out what we do, what we need, what we want, and how to help.” She said he mentioned that he’s working on a series of visits with all the organic growers in Redland to get their input.

The visit made a favorable impression on farm intern Nicole Fiori. “I thought it was really refreshing to see that he got involved. It felt like he actually wanted to help us achieve our goals.”

Joe Garcia and Margie Pikarsky walking and talking at Bee Heaven Farm. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

Joe Garcia and Margie Pikarsky walking and talking at Bee Heaven Farm. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

And so Margie took the Congressman on a tour of her farm. They strolled around and stopped to smell aromatic allspice leaves, taste delicate pei tsai greens, and spoke about various topics impacting agriculture — NAFTA, immigration labor, and two insect borne diseases — laurel wilt and citrus greening — which are threatening to destroy Florida’s avocado and citrus crops.

Read more about the Congressman’s visit here.

Farmer Margie Pikarsky and Congressman Joe Garcia, with a package of Rachel's Eggs. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

Farmer Margie Pikarsky and Congressman Joe Garcia, with a package of Rachel’s Eggs. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

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In August and early September, the stars of Bee Heaven Farm are the shiny green Donnie avocados grown to almost football size. Stroll through the grove even this late in summer and you’ll see many, both on the branches and littering the ground below.

Summertime is a good time to visit fruit growers in Redland, because as you tour their groves, they’ll pick a fruit and let you taste it. So when the newest member of the Extension office, Tropical Fruit Agent Jeff Wasielewski, came to visit, that’s exactly what farmer Margie Pikarsky did. She took him for a walk around her farm, where they paused at different fruit trees, tasted a couple things along the way, and shared stories about the trees’ health and growth. “Visiting smart, forward-thinking growers like Margie is important for me as a learning tool and not just a social visit,” he said. (The UF/Miami-Dade County Extension office shares the latest agriculture information from University of Florida’s researchers with farmers and gardeners in the county. Some of the ways are through workshops, educational materials, field consulatations, and their web site.)

Tropical Fruit Agent Jeff Wasielewski and Margie Pikarsky open up an avocado.

Tropical Fruit Agent Jeff Wasielewski and Margie Pikarsky open up an avocado.

Margie’s pride and joy is the grove of over 90 avocado trees, which she herself planted back in 1996. She and Wasielewski stopped at one tree where she picked up a windfall avocado and handed it to him. It looked ready to eat, so he pulled pruning snips from a case on his belt, and cut open the fruit.

He’s a tall, easy going man with a ready smile and 18 years of tropical fruit experience, and 21 years of horticulture in South Florida. You might already know him from lectures, articles and videos he made for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, where he was the Educational Outreach Specialist. He’s developed keen senses and loads of experience when it comes to tropical fruit and plants. All it took was one taste and he said the avocado was a day away from being perfectly ripe.

Further down the row of trees, he noticed a dead branch, which Margie snapped off. “Be careful,” he warned. “A dead branch like that can attract other beetles now suspected of carrying laurel wilt.” Margie explained that she removes dead branches from the trees as soon as she finds them, and trims the trees every year. So far her grove looks healthy, but laurel wilt disease remains a lurking concern.

Laurel wilt is a dangerous avocado disease that appeared in Miami-Dade County a few years ago. It is spread by the red bay ambrosia beetle, which is tinier than a grain of rice. Wasielewski  explained that the beetle burrows into healthy avocados and other trees in the laurel family. “It cultivates a fungus that eventually kills the tree branch by branch by disrupting its vascular system. Signs of the disease are quick branch dieback or tiny holes and sawdust towers where the beetles enter the tree. The tree will die very quickly if infected. Commercial growers are advised to quickly and completely remove the tree and its roots. The removed tree should be burned in place, out of fear of spreading infested wood to other groves and trees. Root removal is necessary because the disease may spread from tree to tree through root grafts,” he told me in an email.

So far there have been over 2000 trees removed due to laurel wilt in commercial groves in Redland, and  growers are worried, and anxious for a cure. When the first tree in a large commercial grove was suspected of having the disease, Extension held a standing room only meeting for growers, informing them of the threat. They continue to provide updated information on their website and with occasional meetings. (Yes, backyard trees in town are also at risk. Find info for homeowners at Save The Guac web site.)

Jeff and Margie

Jeff and Margie

As Tropical Fruit Agent, one of Wasielewski’s goals is to inform avocado growers of new research on combating laurel wilt. “It’s important that I am on the cutting edge of what is going on in the tropical fruit world,” he said. University of Florida has done tests, and complied a list of pesticides that will kill the ambrosia beetle. Unfortunately, none of them can be used in an organic grove. Local organic growers are pressuring the scientists to test substances approved for use in organic production.

Margie expressed her frustration to Wasielewski at the current lack of effective organic options. He said he would keep her informed as to new research into alternative treatments. “I want growers to have options as far as doing things in an environmentally friendly way. I let them know their options and the value of each option. Growers are then free to make a choice on how they want to proceed, but only if they are armed with new knowledge and multiple options,” he told me in an email.

For now, it’s wait and see how bad laurel wilt gets in Redland, and how quickly research can come up with solutions that all growers can use. Wasielewski is an important addition to the Extension office during a critical time for tropical fruit growers.

As for Bee Heaven Farm, over the years Margie has accumulated a wide variety of other tropical fruit trees, tucked away here and there among the vegetable beds. Sapodilla, carambola, longan, mango, and bananas are planted in various spots on her five acre farm. If her avocado trees have to go, she’ll plant different fruit trees and more vegetables, she once told me. But until then, she and other growers will put up a fight to save their groves.

Got a question about tropical fruit? Contact Jeff Wasielewski at 305-248-3311, ext. 227 or email at jwasielewski@ufl.edu .

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Margie Pikarsky and Charles LaPradd with the new Local Flavors cookbook.

Margie Pikarsky and Charles LaPradd with the new Local Flavors cookbook.

Recently, Charles LaPradd, the county agriculture manager, stopped by Bee Heaven Farm with a special delivery. He unloaded several boxes of Redland’s latest crop — “Local Flavor: Recipes Raised in the Florida Redland” — a very special cookbook two and a half years in the making.

It’s filled with recipes for local produce gathered from growers and cooks. The list of contributors is a who’s who of area growers and cooks. Farmer Margie Pikarsky has three of her own recipes: Avocado Salad (or Chunky Guacamole), Calabaza & Watercress Salad, and Strawberry Black Satin Pudding. “Veronique,” a Sea Grape Martini, was originally concocted with Margie’s sea grapes for a Slow Food Miami event.

If it grows in Redland, there’s a mouthwatering recipe for it, and almost all look quick and easy to make. Carambola is coming into season now, and Star Fruit Chicken Salad caught my eye. A useful chart in the back lists what’s growing when. This is a great book for CSA members to have in their kitchen.

Bios of various farmers were originally included in the  cookbook, but unfortunately didn't make the cut for the final version.

Bios of various farmers were originally included in the cookbook, but unfortunately didn’t make the cut for the final version.

The book is beautifully produced, with luscious pictures of produce and and lovely countryside. Yes, that’s what Miami-Dade County’s back yard looks like! If there is one disappointment, there are no pictures of the finished dishes. The book is thoughtfully designed to be used in a kitchen, with glossy, heavy pages to stand up to drips and spills, and a spiral binding that lets pages lay flat. There’s plenty of white space to scribble comments.

Charles delivered 100 copies, which Margie is selling on her summer web store for $16 each (including tax). You can also buy it from the Dade County Farm Bureau. The book will also be available at the Homestead Book Fair on October 5th. Three thousand copies have been printed. “There’s no room to move in my office,” LaPradd said, laughing. Help him free up some floor space and buy a book!

redland-raised-logo-smallThe cookbook was published so that people can learn about the area, and how to use its products, LaPradd explained. Proceeds from its sales will go toward raising money to pay for colorful produce stickers with the Redland Raised logo.

Starting this October, those stickers plus in-store displays should be in Publix stores so shoppers can clearly identify what’s locally grown. Some of the local produce to look for (as it comes into season) is green beans, yellow squash, zucchini, boniato, okra and avocados. And if you don’t find those displays, or if they’re on produce that clearly isn’t from here, complain to the store’s produce manager. This is information that LaPradd’s office provides free to stores.

If Redland Raised sounds vaguely familiar, the brand was launched with great hope and promise on October 29, 2009. Various dignitaries including LaPradd, county mayor Carlos Alvarez, several commissioners, a bunch of Redland growers, and store execs gathered in the produce department of a Publix near Tropical Park for the kickoff. But a cold winter freeze that damaged a lot of crops caused a setback, and both local veggies and signage disappeared from stores. Now the program is rallying a comeback, and hopefully sales of the new “eat local” cookbook will revive interest from both cooks and retailers.

The Redland Raised brand was LaPradd’s brainchild, and it was designed to be used in conjunction with the state ag department’s Fresh From Florida brand. Only Redland growers who are members of the Florida Agricultural Promotional Campaign (FAPC) can use the Redland Raised logo to promote their produce as grown in Redland.

Surrounded by a bounty of local, Redland produce, Charles LaPradd speaks at the launch in 2009.

Surrounded by a bounty of local, Redland produce, Charles LaPradd speaks at the launch in 2009.

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Onionville was so amazing that I had to document it with my video camera. Here, farmer Arturo Gonzalez takes me on a brief tour of a sea of red and yellow onions drying in the barn at Bee Heaven Farm. If you are a CSA member, you ate his lovely red spring onions not too long ago. There’s plenty more where that came from, if you like such things. Keep your eyes open for onions in the summer offerings.

This is the very first farm video I’m posting on the blog and on YouTube. If you want to see more videos, let me know and I’ll post some more, now and then, when I get a chance.

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Here’s a look back, the first of a series, of Bee Heaven Farm/Redland Organics at Pinecrest Farmers Market this winter. Their last day was April 28th, 2013, and now the market season is over for them until fall. Farmer Margie, husband Nick, and their hard working crew will be back in December. Until then, enjoy happy memories of mornings at market browsing for ridiculously fresh local fruits and veggies. The following pictures were taken on December 2, 2012.


Farmer Margie weighs tomatoes.


Nick (with straw hat) helping a customer.


Nicole holding sugar cane.


Red lettuce looks airbrushed.








Nose-y eggplants.

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