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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.

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Farmer Margie weighs tomatoes.

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Nick (with straw hat) helping a customer.

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Nicole holding sugar cane.

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Red lettuce looks airbrushed.

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Nose-y eggplants.

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With love and kale

ghost-bookReaders may know her as the Edgy Veggie columnist for the Miami Herald, or the Meatless Monday columnist for the Huffington Post. Ellen Kanner, an award-winning food writer, launched her first book to a packed house at Books & Books recently. Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith & What to Eat for Dinner is a thoughtful, cheerful collection of recipes and the stories behind them, written with gentle wit and sensual musings on life, love and food.

The hungry ghost of the title is a Taoist concept, and Ellen uses it to refer to anyone who might be feeling hungry for food, meaning, connection or unconditional love. For Ellen, cooking food and serving it to her friends and family is a way of expressing that love and quelling those ghosts. “I write about the value of community,” Ellen said at the book signing presented by Slow Food Miami. “Food brings us together in many ways. We are all here together in a great global stew. We depend on each other.”

Author Ellen Kanner

Author Ellen Kanner

Ellen is not shy with the flavors of her dishes. She revels in creating rich and complex blends. Her recipes are inspired by exotic corners of the world. In her hands, familiar vegetables don’t taste so ordinary anymore. “There’s a great big world out there and it’s all worth tasting,” Ellen said.

Moroccan Carrot Salad is a zippy orange slaw with hits of cumin, cayenne and lemon. Summer Tomato Salad is spiced with za’atar. Red Lentil Soup fairly dances with Indian notes of coriander, turmeric and red pepper flakes. Earthy cardomom might be her favorite spice. “Slightly honeyed, slightly dusky — it struck a low note, back in the throat, deep in the viscera. It seemed to dirty-dance with our tongues.” Ellen writes poetically and sensually about flavors, textures and feelings. Don’t you dare snarf down a meal — enjoy! “Food is like foreplay, a pleasure in and of itself, one you don’t want to rush. Allow yourself to get into the mood,” she wrote. (She even tells the story of an orgy she hosted for her friends at the tender age of 15. You can read about it on page 35.)

The dessert table loaded with platters of seed cake, vegan chocolate cake, orange blossom cookies and multifaith sweetness and light sugarplums.

The dessert table was loaded with platters of seed cake, vegan chocolate cake, orange blossom cookies, and multifaith sweetness and light sugarplums.

Yet as adventurous as the recipes might get, Ellen is partial to home grown and praised the local food scene. More farmers markets are closing the gap between grower and consumer, and Slow Food Miami’s school gardens encourage kids to get their hands dirty. “Grow your own food,” Ellen suggested to a reader in the audience, “even if it’s a pot of herbs on the windowsill. Get a real appreciation of what it takes to grow real food.”

Organic growers Gabriele Marewski ad Norman Brooks

Organic growers Gabriele Marewski ad Norman Brooks

Friends and fans swooned and praised Ellen, who cheerfully signed books and posed for pictures. A number of local food luminaries were in there: organic farmer Gabriele Marewski, organic grower Norman Brooks, food writer Trina Sargalski, and a fair number of Slow Food Miami members, among others.

A table was loaded with desserts baked by Slow Food members, from recipes from the book. Local chef Ariana Kumpis brought seed cake, loaded with chia and flax seeds, scented with anise. Soft orange blossom cookies were perfumed with orange water and studded with pine nuts. Moist and richly flavored vegan chocolate cake disappeared quickly. “Love transforms even the simplest dish. It makes our inner light shine.” For a happy moment, hungry ghosts were sated with love of the edible kind.

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Nick and Margie Pikarsy with Roger Blanco

Nick and Margie Pikarsy with Roger Blanco

A belated shout-out to all the hard working people of Fruit and Spice Park who helped make GrowFest! happen. Here’s Farmer Margie with her husband Nick with Roger Blanco, a park staffer who was most helpful in setting things up for the event. The farmers had a chance to hang out with him at the park’s Redland Fish Fry back in November.

If you’ve never been to the park, go! It’s a wonderful place to wander around and look at their extensive collection of tropical and exotic edible plants. Even the name, Fruit and Spice, conjures up someplace distant and adventurous. Or taste the local  flavors of Redland at the park’s Mango Cafe, open from 11-4 seven days a week. Try the Fruit Sampler, made from seasonal ripe fruit straight from the park. How much more locavore can you get?

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