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Posts Tagged ‘Melissa Contreras’

Greetings once again, Redland Ramblers! Guest blogger Melissa Contreras here again, founder of Urban Oasis Project, urban micro-farmer.  I’m back to tell you about day two of my trip to the Small Farms/Alternative Enterprises Conference last weekend.

After rising early, we all piled into Margie’s van and headed over to the Osceola Heritage Park for the official beginning of the conference. Since I know that all you local foodies want to know about the food, let me start with breakfast: rather light fare was provided at the conference, but like our full lunch, it consisted mostly of Florida farm-grown food. A deep dish frittata of free-range Florida eggs with cream from grass-fed cows was served, accompanied by Lambeth Groves’ orange juice, cold and fresh, a perfect blend of sweetness and acidity. We were treated to Florida’s “other juice,” Muscadine grape juice: crisp, lightly sweet, and perfumed of dewy-misted grapes, from Lakeridge Winery and Vineyard in the high country of Clermont. Certified organic blueberries from Gail and Mike Waldron of Bay Lake Blueberries in Marion County mingled with mangos from our own Dr. Jonathan Crane of TREC in Homestead.  Fair trade coffee was provided by Sweetwater Organic Coffee Company of Gainesville, which purchases from Rainforest Alliance-certified small farmers in the Tropics. For our coffee, we actually had the luxury of choosing milk from 2 small dairies, Dakin Dairy Farm of Myakka City, or Kurtz and Sons Dairy of Live Oak. Bubba and Leslie Kurtz run a “grass-fed dairy farmstead” of Jerseys and Shorthorns, and work to keep their milk as close to Nature as possible. This is not a business slogan for them, it is a way of life. After coffee finished with Nature’s perfect food, I was ready for a full day of conference and break-out sessions.

We all headed over to the big lunch room for the opening session. Welcomes came from kick-off speakers Dr. Joan Dusky of UF/IFAS in Gainesville and Dr. Ray Mobley of FAMU in Tallahassee, a co-sponsor of the event. FAMU and UF and are Florida’s 2 land grant universities, dating back to the ugly days of segregation, when black people went to one university and white people went to another. (Beside the obvious injustice of this, it begs another question- where did the original inhabitants of this land go? But that is another story.)

Next came the Florida Innovative Farmer Awards! These awards are given to farmers and ranchers who are leaders and innovators, based on the following criteria (quote):

  • Success in making farming systems more profitable over the long term.
  • Ability to use farming practices that enhance, rather than harm, natural resources.
  • Leading -or participating in-  activities that support viable communities, either through economic development or contribution to regional food systems.
  • Effective outreach and/or education about sustainable agriculture ideas and practices to others, such as producers, community leaders, agricultural educators, and the general public.

There were 3 winners of these awards, the first being Chris and Eva Worden of Worden Farm in Punta Gorda. They got up on the stage in front of their small farmer peers, and were given a well-deserved round of thunderous applause. Both are Ivy League educated, Yale and Cornell, but are very down-to-Earth and in love with their vocation and avocation, farming. Upon acceptance of the award, Chris said to the audience, “We love to grow crops.” They grow 50 different varieties, mostly vegetables, some fruit, and do it organically, using soil and water conservation techniques. They have a CSA, sell at farmers markets, have workshops at the farm, art programs, and “grow future farmers and gardeners.” They help community gardens, about which Eva knows a thing or two, having authored papers on the subject. She said “anyone who works with community gardens knows that it is easy to start one, harder to maintain them, so we stay with them, encourage and help them.” Eva explained that they “grow great crops, connect with the local community, and promote the viability of the family farm.”

(L-R) Christine Kelly-Begazo, Eva Worden, Chris Worden. The Wordens receiving the Florida Innovative Farmer Award, a happy achievement for the work they love!

I went to Worden Farm last year with Farmer Margie and the WWOOFers, and my folks from Urban Oasis Project. We had a tour of the farm, and got to see the amazing results Chris and Eva get from good stewardship of their 55 certified organic acres. Because they supply some of the food in Redland Organics CSA shares, I thanked them for feeding my family. By the way, have you thanked your farmer lately?

The second recipient of the awards was Trish Strawn of Deep Creek Ranch in Deland. Trish and her dad, David, work the family farm which has been around since 1883. Trish said they got into grass-fed beef because her dad had a health issue, but she said if you ask her dad, he’ll say it’s because they’re “cutting edge.” The room broke into laughter.Trish is Co-Leader of Slow Food Orlando, and a founding member of the Florida Food Policy Council. She is also a lot of fun to go out and have a beer and a lot of good laughs with, which we did later that night. Trish and her dad are the real deal. Joel Salatin must be proud.

The third award recipient was George Owens of Chipley, FL, who has a mixed cattle and timber/forestry operation, or silvopasture. George could not be present for the awards because his son had just come home for a short visit from Afghanistan. All were very happy for him. The award presenters said “we tend toward a monoculture system, so when we get someone who does integration, we want to encourage it.”  I am a believer in agroecology, and it is very encouraging to hear agricultural professionals talk about moving away from monocultures!

I was very excited to hear my friend Will Allen of Growing Power, Inc. give the keynote address. Unfortunately, Will had some knee surgery which made it impossible for him to travel to the conference, though that was the original plan. Technology to the rescue! The AV geeks got the satellite/internet hookup to Will Allen up and running, and we were able to see and hear him on 2 large screens, and he was able to see and hear us.

That's me with Will Allen at a Growing Power workshop last year. Will loves scooping Lake Perch out of his aquaponics tanks! He loved to fish when he lived in Miami too.

Larger than life on the big screen, Will spoke about the history of Growing Power, all the amazing past, present and future projects they have, and was enthusiastic and inspirational as always. Larger than life is a profound statement when referring to Will Allen, who stands tall at 6’7” and weighs 230 pounds. Will played basketball for the University of Miami in the 1970’s, and still wears an orange and green UM cap with his signature royal blue Growing Power sweatshirt with cut-off sleeves. His biceps are bigger than many supermodel’s waists, and he keeps them that way by working hard every day, growing food for Milwaukee’s inner city on 3 acres, 2 blocks from one of the country’s largest low-income housing projects, in what was an urban food desert until Will’s good food movement became a good food revolution. Will is not an armchair CEO. He gets his hands dirty. He loves farming like Chris and Eva Worden do. I think some of us are born agrarian. It is not a choice, it’s in our blood, and it’s who we are.

Will showed many slides of Growing Power in action: composting thousands of tons of Milwakee’s food and brewery waste and “growing soil” as he says; passing compost through the digestive tracts of thousands of worms, creating rich worm castings fertilizer; raising tilapia and lake perch in the bottom level of a 3-tiered, homemade aquaponics system, with watercress growing in the middle layer, and tomatoes on top; raising chickens and bees in the city; providing a safe after-school space for urban youth to learn green job skills; feeding senior citizens healthy food with a “food basket” CSA; providing a retail grocery space with their fresh salad greens, eggs, and so much more to the neighborhood in which Growing Power’s urban farm resides.

“If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community.  I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.”

Will is a major inspiration for what we do in Urban Oasis Project, doing our part to make good, clean, safe, healthy, and local food accessible to all. Access to real food should be a right of all citizens. Will says “we can’t wait around for government or others to do it, we have to do it, just start doing things.”

I could go on about Will Allen forever, but I’ll stop here. Please come back for Part Three, highlighting local food lunches and conference workshops!

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Hey there Redland Ramblers! This is guest blogger Melissa Contreras, founder of Urban Oasis Project. Last night, a group of Redland and Miami farmers and I returned home after a weekend at the 2nd Small Farms/Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee.  I have always been a farmer wannabe, and as such, I grow food for my family, my pet bunnies,  and a few friends on my 1/4 acre “urban homestead” in Kendall.  I was happy to learn at the conference that this small scale of growing is now being officially considered as part of our local food system, as it should be! The University of Florida/IFAS Extension isn’t just for big farmers and agribusiness, we little people count too!

Cast of characters on this road trip included Bee Heaven Farmer Margie, husband Nick, their new farm manager Jane;  Muriel of Little River Market Garden, Mario of Guara Ki Farm, and me.  Meeting up at Bee Heaven Farm, we shared a ride in Margie’s van, and took the scenic route around the shores of Lake Okeechobee on US 27. It was beautiful! Cows and egrets mingled in green pastures, Nick spotted a sandhill crane, and tri-color herons searched for underwater snacks near the water’s edge. Along the way, through what was once a river of grass, we saw fields of sugarcane (some organic), and picturesque views which reminded me that while South Florida is often thought of as a metropolitan built environment,  it still belongs to Mother Nature, though altered. Hopefully Everglades restoration will return the river of grass to its rightful owner.

After 4 hours on the road, we arrived  and checked into our hotel, the posh and sophisticated Super 8. Hey, we’re on a budget, OK?  I shared a suite with Margie, Nick, and Jane.  After repeated promises to Jane that I would not confuse her with my husband in the middle of the night, she decided to sleep on the couch.  But, I digress.  We had a nice lunch in restored historic downtown Kissimmee, an old cowboy town with a lovely lakefront, unique and colorful wooden homes with gingerbread mill work, unusual eateries and watering holes like ” The Wicked Stepsister,” a nice antique shop,  and so much more. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, take a break from the Orlando area tourist traps and visit this authentic town.

After lunch, we proceeded to the Osceola Heritage Center, site of the next day’s convention, for meetings of the Greater Everglades Foodshed Alliance, the Florida Food Policy Council, and a pre-conference pow-wow with Extension agents from all over Florida. The Greater Everglades Foodshed Alliance meeting was a recap of the Food Summit for interested parties.  The Florida Food Policy Council will “bring together stakeholders from diverse food-related sectors to examine how the food system is operating and to develop recommendations on how to improve it. FPCs may take many forms, but are typically either commissioned by state or local government, or predominately a grassroots effort. Food policy councils have been successful at educating officials and the public, shaping public policy, improving coordination between existing programs, and starting new programs.” (definition from foodsecurity.org). We are forming a soon-to-be Miami food policy council. (Contact Mario if you have a stake in our local food system and want to participate in this new effort.)

Those who attended the informal Friday meetings were also invited to sit in on the pre-conference event for UF/IFAS Extension agents, in which  Dr. Danielle Treadwell, Dr. Mickey Swisher, and Sarasota Extension’s new Director and doctoral candidate Evangeline “Van” Linkous  talked about our changing food system from their different points of view and varying expertise.  Dr. Treadwell champions UF research in organic and sustainable farming, and feels that “educating consumers is an important part of what we do.”  Dr. Swisher said she was surprised to discover the “30 mile problem” in which  “disadvantaged communities in Florida’s urban areas often live 30-40 miles from areas where fresh produce is grown.”  Van’s background is in planning and she was a member of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Council before coming back to Florida from Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. She feels that much urban zoning could be converted to mixed-use, which could mean urban farms and farm stands could be located within high-density urban populations, giving urbanites more access to local, fresh food. A kindred spirit! We are quite lucky to have these three women in Extension.

So, if you’re catching on to a theme here, the conference tagline was “Sustaining Small Farms…Strengthening Florida’s Communities.”  There was much excitement among attendees on that Friday before the conference, seeing our major research institutions catching onto interests of so many people in local food,  and food justice as a paradigm shift from our current system. Further illustrating this point is the choice of keynote speaker for the conference: my personal hero, Will Allen, founder of  Growing Power, Inc.

I will write more about Saturday of the conference in the next post:  keynote speaker Will Allen, the three Florida Innovative Farmer Award winners, conference workshops, amazing local foods lunch and more! Come back  for more, including pictures!

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text by Art Friedrich, urban farmer, member of Urban Oasis Project
photos by Antonio Guadamuz, member of Urban Oasis Project

Saturday, Nov 28, 2009

Art Friedrich and partner Luigi (in flannel) touring ECHO

Getting out beyond SE FL to see what other things are happening in organic and sustainable agriculture in Florida, 16 folks headed out to ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) Global Farm and Worden’s Organic Farm in N. Ft. Myers and Punta Gorda, respectively. The group consisted of a number of the workers and WWOOF’ers from Bee Heaven Farm, as well as the big brain behind it all, Farmer Margie. Joining them were a number of local food enthusiasts from Urban Oasis Project and some of the new batch of Master Gardener Interns. [Note: Margie organizes a trip to ECHO and Worden every year during the Thanksgiving weekend, for the purpose of enlightening her farm interns and volunteers, and others who want to make the trip.]

Our first stop was the ECHO Global Farm, a christian based project started over 25 years ago to combat the problem of world hunger, primarily in the tropical zone, using the most concrete and long-lasting ways. Tours are available daily, and are well worth the $8. The tour consists of two hours of seeing and hearing about numerous fascinating plants, and methods of growing highly nutritious foods using unconventional and conventional methods that require little monetary outlay. There are six different recreated environments, such as a rainforest, an arid area, a monsoon climate (like we have, with 6 months dry and 6 months really wet), and the fascinating urban garden section.

Container gardening taken to a new level.

The urban garden section showed some great examples of reusing trash, such as old tires, to create containers. Also fascinating was the wicking gardens that are mostly made up of a carpet with a little bit of soil in top and some gravel or even cans wrapped in socks for the plants to have structure to grow on. You fill a closed bucket with a hole in the bottom with water, stick it on an edge of the carpet, and let the garden suck the moisture out as it needs it! This is a great way to use a minimum of water and soil. While some of us had questions about the safety of carpet material, other types of substrate could be developed. Probably any old canvas or woven mat material would do. They try laying the carpet out in the natural UV rays of the sun to break down harmful chemicals.

I also enjoyed the mention of their research using human urine as fertilizer — it is packed full of good nutrients and is sterile! In some countries, this has been government sanctioned for a while, such as in Sweden, where some housing developments have been built with urine diverting toilets that drain to some big tanks. When the farmers need fertilizer, they just pull up, pump some of the liquid gold out, and spray it right on their fields! The savings in water and fertilizer are stellar, and it is only cultural taboo that makes the subject so difficult.

Urban homesteading at its finest!

The Moringa tree is a favorite plant there. They call it the Miracle Tree. One can eat almost any part of it, and it is incredibly dense with nutritive value, and the tree grows in almost any condition. I’ve started my own little plantation at my house in S. Miami.

Rustic raised bed

ECHO is also a seed bank, and they send seeds all over the world to see what works, with attention to both the physical and the cultural aspects. This aspect impresses me. It is applied science that recognizes humanity’s needs as a driving force in experimentation. And the needs of the global poor are great, but with sensitivity and ingenuity, the poor can be given the tools they need to improve their own lives in a sustainable and self-empowering way. ECHO taps into their own knowledge and traditions and offers a broader knowledge base for them to work with.

Endless fields at Worden Farm

The second half of our day was visiting Worden Farm in Punta Gorda. The farm is a brilliant example of hard work and smart planning to generate massive amounts of organic vegetables, sold all along the Gulf Coast. The farm is 55 acres, with about 35 in production, and is only six years old. The soil is almost pure sand, so lots of chicken manure is used as their fertilizer, as well as cover crops to slowly improve the quality. Long rows of raised beds made with plastic sheeting make upkeep relatively easy, and the veggies all looked absolutely flawless.

Drip irrigation system at Worden Farm

The plastic sheeting with drip tape irrigation underneath also helps limit water use, as well as the extra work of short watering cycles very frequently. Extra work to reduce the negative environmental impacts of the farm is a tradeoff they are happy to make. Those plastic sheets at the end of the season don’t hit a trash pile. They go to an agricultural plastics recycler.

Touring Worden Farm by electric cart. L-R: Wwoofer, Eva Worden, Cesar Contreras, Margie Pikarsky (back turned), Melissa Contreras

Farm Ferrari

Cow at Worden Farm

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If you missed seeing FRESH the Movie at last month’s screening up in Broward, you have another chance. The good folks at the Urban Oasis Project are showing FRESH at their September meeting. Also on the agenda is a potluck dinner and a garden tour. The screening/meeting is on Saturday, September 12th. For more details — including how to RSVP — go to the Urban Oasis project website.

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Two films about food rolled into town last weekend. Both FRESH and Food, Inc. (which played all around town earlier this summer) cover the same ground of factory farming versus sustainable organic family farming. Both will hopefully make you think twice about what you eat and where it comes from. But the two films differ like night and day in tone and approach toward current food production systems, and their discussion of alternatives.

Food, Inc. was definitely the big budget production with slick graphics, aerials, and an emotion-wringing score. The film focused on the dark side of corporate, mass-produced products which we all know packaged and processed foods in the supermarket. Chickens and sides of beef hanging on large hooks passed on conveyors that filled huge buildings. One could almost smell the footage of in-your-face scenes of feedlots and slaughterhouses. Food, Inc. mentioned a lumber of lawsuits that Monsanto had filed against farmers for saving seeds, or getting their fields infected by GMO pollen (familiar ground if you have already seen The Future of Food). Monsanto took a drubbing in this film for suing farmers. Author Michael Pollan explained all processed foods are based in some ways from mass produced corn or soybeans. (If you’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you’re familiar with this information.) As the credits rolled, I felt I had been beaten by a gloomy sci-fi stick, only the future is now. Alternative organic farming was mentioned as a solution, but Joel Salatin’s enthusiasm seemed insufficient to overcome the horrors of factory farming and corporate foods.

Luiz Rorogues, Gabriele Marewski, Michael Laas

Luiz Rodrigues, ECOMB; Gabriele Marewski, Paradise Farms; Michael Laas, ECOMB

After the showing of Food Inc., organic farmer Gabriele Marewski of
Paradise Farms fielded questions. She bought an optimistic attitude (along with a big bowl of longans, avocados and mamey) that provided an antidote to the movie’s gloom. “The biggest revenge is to grow our own food,” she said. “Grow whatever you possibly can. It’s a movement and they can’t stop us.” She mentioned her new business venture, Miami Victory Gardens, a potting and growing system that anybody can put into their yard to raise their own herbs and vegetables. Gabriele described gardening as a spiritual exercise which allows you to “develop a relationship with food and your place in the world.”

The next day I went to see FRESH, hesitantly thinking I would get more of the same. There are some overlaps between the two films. Both interviewed organic farmer Joel Salatin and author Michael Pollan. In Food, Inc., they were cast as voices criticizing the corporate food system, but in FRESH the conversations with them and other farmers are more thoughtful and optimistic, and the film’s slower pace allowed interviews to go deeper.

FRESH the movie

FRESH the movie

Salatin was beautifully photographed working on his farm herding cows to greener pastures, towing eggmobiles full of chickens in early morning mist, and hanging out with happy tail-wagging hogs. He spoke about growing a superior product on his own terms that people clamor for, and described his chickens as “fellow workers that you honor and respect and fully allow them to express their chickenness.” He is “committed to healing the land,” and he said that “part of the responsibility of being stewards of the earth is to respect the design of nature.”

Michael Pollan pointed out that cheap food is an illusion because ultimately it’s paid for by the environment, by subsidies, or by your declining health. “Local and organic costs more but it’s worth more,” he said. Conventional food may be cheaper, but its nutritional values are also cheaper, down by 40 percent. The big challenge remains in the “food deserts” of inner cities, where people want fresh food but can’t get it in their neighborhood stores.

One possible solution (as farmer Gabriele suggested) is to grow it yourself. FRESH interviewed Will Allen, urban farmer in Milwaukee and 2008 MacArthur Fellowship recipient, who teaches people how to raise their own food. (CSA member Melissa Contreras attended his workshop earlier this year.) “It is important that everybody has access to healthy, sustainable food,” Allen said. And what better way to do it than grow hanging pots of microgreens, build a tank and stock it with tilapia, and compost with lots and lots of squirmy worms? Urban farming, according to Allen, is a “social justice movement, based on how people live and how we treat each other.”

FRESH ended on a hopeful note. Every decision made in the supermarket creates the future for land, diversity, farmers and our own bodies, all by voting with our dollars, explained agricultural economist John Ikerd. “It’s a new vision for the future that we don’t have to wait for,” he said. “We can transform the whole system one person at a time by choosing what we buy and what we eat right now.”

Scott Lewis, Melissa Contreras, Antonio Guadamuz

Scott Lewis, Melissa Contreras, Antonio Guadamuz, of Urban Oasis Project

Food, Inc. might scare you a bit, and FRESH will inspire you to plant some seeds. They both will certainly make you think. Hopefully those of us who do vote with our forks can help those who are stuck in food deserts or seas of nutritional ignorance. Over 400 people belong to the Redland Organics CSA. Hopefully our changes will ripple out to others, like our kids learning to make healthy choices, or friends who are willing to try something other than “foodlike substances” (to quote Michael Pollan).

As for the corporate food system, I suspect it won’t completely change until the growers change. This summer I was visiting relatives in southwest Wisconsin, in an area full of corn, wheat and soybean farms. They are family operations, and average about 100 acres. But since my last visit a few years ago, I saw more clusters of houses and less farms. The land gets sold because the farmer just can’t make a profit much longer, or the children don’t want to continue. Why don’t they switch to vegetable farming, I asked naively. Because that takes too much labor, I was told. Where are the farmer’s markets, I asked. Was told Hmong refugees who settled in the area grow their own kinds of vegetables and sell to each other, but that’s about it for local markets. Hmmm, maybe commodity farmers in Wisconsin need to see FRESH or talk to Salatin… I’m just sayin…

ana Sofia joanes article about making FRESH
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ana-joanes/ifreshi—-new-thinking-a_b_201822.html

Alexandra Duffy

Alexandra Duffy, urban farmer

Thanks to Alexandra Duffy, urban farmer, who obtained the DVD of FRESH and organized the screening. Get your own copy from the movie web site.

Food, Inc. will be available on DVD in November. Watch the trailer here.

Resources mentioned in audience discussions are veggieswap.com, squarefootgardening.com, veggietrader.com, localfoodmiami.ning.com, and eatwild.com.

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