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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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Bagging the beans

Luis (left) weighs a bag of beans, with Victor and Donna.

Early on the last Friday of the CSA season, the sun rose steadily in the sky, and late season tomatoes in vegetable beds overrun with weeds glittered with the last fat drops of morning dew. Inside the big metal barn at Bee Heaven Farm, work had already started on packing the last shares of the season.

Bagging bushels of beans.

First, green beans had to be weighed and bagged. They had arrived the day before from Witt Road Farms in La Belle. Several full bushel boxes needed to be portioned out equally. Family shares got one pound, and small shares got half a pound. The farm interns got into two teams to divide up the work. In each team, two people bagged and weighed, and two tied and counted the bags.

Exactly one pound of green beans.

On my team, Victor and Luis bagged and weighed. Donna and I had the job of tying and counting. Donna showed me a cool, quick technique to tie a bag. She explained, “First you smush the air out of it, then fold over the top edge. Hold the two corners, flip the bag around a couple times, then knot the corners together.” The first time I tried flipping the bag, I smacked myself in the chest and Donna and I both laughed. “Better than your face,” she teased. She and I placed bags of beans into rows of five, counted, then loaded them into a green tote.

Bag, weigh, tie, count. Bag, weigh, tie, count.  The two teams bantered back and forth as they packed with a quick and easy flow that came from weeks of working together. Bag, weigh, tie, count. In 20 minutes it was all over — the crew packed 115 one-pound bags and 242 half-pound bags — and it wasn’t even 7:30 yet!

L to R: Victor, Sadie (hidden behind) Margie, Tim (hand showing, behind) Marsha, Luis, Donna

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Dances with rebar


Sadie working rebar out of the ground.

After Bee Heaven Farm’s CSA season ended in May, work shifted to cleaning up planting beds and putting things away. Irrigation hoses and tapes that watered plants at ground level were rolled up. Bamboo poles that supported colorful heirloom beans were pulled up and stacked in the barn. And the toughest job of all was to take down the tomato trellising.

Giving a good tug to see if rebar will come loose.

Heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, meaning their vines just grow and grow. Their limit is determined by the height of trellising. At Bee Heaven Farm, the support is about 6 feet. Rebar — just like what you’d find on a construction site — is set into the ground several feet apart along each row. Wire mesh is run along the rebars from one end of the row to the other, and this is what supports tomato vines. But when the growing season is over, the mesh needs to be rolled back up and rebar pulled out and put away in the barn for the summer.

Triumphant Sadie takes rebar back to the barn.

Farm interns Mike and Sadie had the tough job of removing trellising, including all the rebar. How hard could it be to pull a piece of metal out of the ground? Pretty hard, I discovered. The soil is dry and holds the steel like cement. You have to wiggle the rebar around, widen its hole, pour some water in to soften the soil, push and pull and twist the rebar around, add more water, maybe catch your breath, and do it again until finally, finally it loosens up and you can tug it out of the ground. (It’s quite a workout for the arms!)

Sadie had her own rebar dance going. She swayed back and forth using her arms and body weight to move the rebar, and worked around in a big circle. Occasionally she stopped to pour a bit of water into the hole she was making.

Ginormous wooly bear caterpillar rescued from a hole in the ground.

There was a moment of life and death drama when a wooly bear caterpillar fell into the water-filled hole. Sadie rushed to rescue it. This is quite a magnificent wooly bear! Not sure what kind of butterfly it grew up to be — any ideas?

Sadie and the wooly bear.

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mike-digs-holes

Mike digging holes spaced two feet apart

So, what’s getting planted at Bee Heaven? Radishes, pole beans and lots and lots of heirloom tomatoes. Stopped by last Friday and saw that most of the prep work had been completed. Irrigation drip lines have been run, connected and leaks mended. Rebar stakes were driven into the ground, and rolls of wire mesh trellising stretched across as a support for the tomatoes. As the plants grow, they will get tied to or weaved into the mesh. When I arrived, Mike and Cassidy were digging holes spaced two feet apart for the tomato transplants.

planning

Jade, Devin and Muriel decide which tomato plants go where

Muriel and her crew Jade and Devin planned which varieties would get planted where. At least 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes are grown on the farm. Chalk’s, Red Fig, Aunt Ruby’s, and Cherokee varieties are from Slow Food’s Ark of Taste list. Muriel explained that first she groups by types — cherry with cherry, or roma with roma. Then the colors are alternated — yellow, orange, green, red, pink, brown and black (actually very dark red) — instead of grouped together. This tomato rainbow, as Jade described, is carefully mapped out. When it’s time to pick, you know what you’re picking. Last season, several varieties of same-colored tomatoes had been planted next to each other, and it was difficult to tell them apart, especially when the fruit wasn’t completely ripe.

cassidy-plants

Cassidy plants a tomato start

Margie watered the starts (seedlings or baby plants) while they were still in their little plastic pots. Once it was decided which varieties went where, Mike brought over flats of starts, and Cassidy set each plant into its hole and tamped the soil down. Jade followed with watering cans and gave each transplant a good drink. When transplanting tomatoes, remove the bottom leaf or two, and set the plant deeply into the ground, up to the cluster of of leaves. The stem will produce more roots, which results in a stronger plant.

Over in another bed, shunjiku radishes had put up their first leaves, and pole beans were sprouting. Drip irrigation lines bring measured amounts of water directly to the plants. Otherwise, not much is growing yet. Margie explained that she started planting late because rain delayed the bedding process. The CSA season is starting in a couple of weeks and I’m wondering what I’ll find in my box. Rumor has it the first share might have green beans from Homestead Organics and lemongrass from Bee Heaven, among other things. Maybe. Whatever is available, Margie said.

jade-watering

Jade watering tomato transplants

When you get local food from a farmer’s CSA, you get what’s growing at that time, during that part of the season. Each fruit, vegetable and herb takes a certain amount of time to grow and mature. Greens and radishes take a few weeks to grow, so you’ll see a lot of those at the beginning. Carrots, potatoes, beets and onions take longer, so you’ll see those toward the end of the season. The heirloom tomatoes will start appearing in December and January. That’s the experience of eating in season.

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Zak H Stern

Zak H Stern

Well, not my prostate, but Zak’s. Former WWOOF-er Zak H Stern has been blogged by Budget Travel. Read the article here.

And what’s a WWOOF-er, you ask? That would be a volunteer apprentice who has registered through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and works on a chosen farm for room and board for an agreed period of time. For the volunteer, it’s a great way to learn about different crops, pick up various farm skills, and meet all kinds of people. Some volunteers already have experience from other farms, others are just starting out. For the farmer, it’s a great way to pass on knowledge, and get willing workers for a nominal cost.

Two seasons ago (2007-2008) Zak worked at Bee Heaven Farm for part of the season. He was cheerful and positive, and a delight to have on the farm and at market. His poem, While my Prostate is Small, was published in The COMmunity POST, the weekly Redland Organics CSA newsletter that goes out with the shares. I got his permission to reprint it. Enjoy!

While my prostate is small

By Zak H Stern

While my prostate is small….
I will travel the world,
Take long bus trips with no ac
And not stop fifty times to pee
While my prostate is small….
I will sleep through the night,
Drink a milkshake before bed
Without a hint of fright.
While my prostate is small….
I will enjoy my youth,
Smooth skin, sharp eyes,
A mind looking for truth.
While my prostate is small….
I will learn how to live,
How to love, how to listen,
How to take, how to give.
While my prostate is small….
I will withdraw from school,
Go live on a farm,
and learn how to live off the fat of the land.
While my prostate is small….
I will live my life to the fullest.

Published in The COMmunity POST, Week 15, March 8, 2008

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