Lettuce Farmer Tim Rowan at the Pinecrest Gardens Green Market.
While most of us are still asleep, farmer Tim Rowan gets up on market days in the middle of the night, turns on the floodlight in his 3/4 acre field, and starts harvesting lettuce and cabbage by 4:30 a.m. The greens are only a few hours old by the time market opens. “That to me is creative,” Tim said. “Growing lettuce is creative. Getting it to customers within hours is creative. Anybody can load it in a box and ship it in. What I have growing that day is what I have at market.”
By 8 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning, Tim was set up underneath a large banyan tree at the Pinecrest Gardens Green Market. A poster size copy of his organic certification hung from the tree, and a big green and white Local & Organic sign was at the front of the table. It was heaped with cabbages and lettuces grown at The Lettuce Farm, Tim’s small certified organic farm located deep in Redland.
Last Sunday, a steady stream of customers and friends appeared at Tim’s table, and he greeted each person, remembering quite a few regulars by name. (He has been selling at this particular market since it started in 1996 in front of Gardner’s Market.) He chatted with them about their kids and families as he briskly bagged up their purchases of salad mix, butterhead lettuce, tatsoi, formosa cabbage and bok choy. A man came up asking for arugula. “All sold out,” Tim told him. “Come early for selection, come late for bargains.” The arugula was gone by 10 am, and almost everything else was gone an hour before the market closed.
Farmer Tim getting ready to weed his lettuce field.
Before farming, Tim was a chef at Mark’s Place. “Inspiration struck” when he saw all kinds of tropical fruit that came in to the kitchen from Ellenby Groves. His first taste of acidity of a Green Zebra heirloom tomato from Teena’s Pride made him realize that “this is real, fresh food. Growing heirloom tomatoes is something real,” he said. So he planted a backyard garden in 1990, expanded to growing heirloom tomatoes on a Kendall farm in 1992, and hasn’t stopped farming. “I saw the restaurant business as a dead end, and thought this was a way out,” he said.
But Tim is still a chef, working 50 to 55 hours a week at Deering Bay Yacht and Country Club. And he is still farming on a small scale. He bought his current place about seven years ago, and switched to growing several varieties of lettuces and cabbages that don’t require as much work to spray and fertilize. He plants late to avoid bugs. “Caterpillars are the biggest problem,” he explained. The greens are fairly sturdy and didn’t seem to be harmed too much by the recent cold. “Everything had a white coating of frost. I still don’t understand how this stuff can freeze for 12 hours and survive,” Tim said with amazement.
Farmer Tim and a very large cabbage.
His farm finally got certified by QCS (the Florida organic certifier) in 2003, a fact which Tim is proud of. “I got tired of explaining that I don’t spray. Having the certification makes a big difference,” he said. As an organic grower, Tim doesn’t use fertilizer, and instead relies on lots of compost to build up the marl soil of his farm.
Tim got into farming 15 years ago thinking he would stop being a chef, but he still has one foot in the kitchen. Instead, farming is what gives his life balance, feeds his soul and keeps him strong. “The farming part turns work more into a virtue,” he said at the end of a long day. “I go out in the morning and enjoy every part of it. It makes you feel great. There’s no drug that can give you the buzz like that. Clean living is good for your body, and mentally too. The older I get the easier it is to work. You realize how grateful you are to work and reap the benefits.”
Find The Lettuce Farm at these farmers markets: Pinecrest Gardens on Sunday, Key Biscayne on Saturday and Jackson Memorial on Thursday. His lettuces are also available at Norman Brothers Market in Kendall.
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