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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.