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Growing together

Organic farming at this co-op is more than healthy eating. It's a way of life.

By JACKIE RIPLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2002


TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- If you've ever had a yen for fresh vegetables and the '60s sense of camaraderie that's gotten lost over the decades then you'll fit right into Sweetwater Organic Community Farm.

Not only is the farm co-op a great place to enjoy the fruits of your labor, it's also a perfect way to meet people of like mind.

"I enjoy growing food, actually seeing it grow and saying, "Oh boy, I planted that,' " said Patty Metz, a 44-year-old hydrologist by profession and budding earth mother by avocation.

Metz, along with 139 other members of the community farm, have made themselves at home on this 5-acre piece of paradise, situated in the flight path of ospreys, chicken hawks and Boeing 747s.

The farm is so popular, in fact, that Rick Martinez, owner of the farm that runs along Sweetwater Creek, can only put names on a waiting list; membership is full.

Located at 6942 W Comanche Ave., in the shadow of Tampa International Airport, Sweetwater Organic Community Farm "just evolved," said Martinez. He has been organically farming here for 15 years.

The wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables is a lure for people like Michael Pinney.

"I like supporting a local business instead of a commercial big industrial farm," said Pinney, who lives in Seminole Heights. "I like vegetables that are picked when ripe, in season."

That is one of the keys to Sweetwater's success. Now in its eighth season, the farm not only gives members a chance, if they desire, to dig in the dirt and watch their handiwork grow, it also provides a nearly endless supply of fresh, delicious produce they can safely say is free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

"A healthy plant resists insects and diseases," said Martinez. "It's a healthier food that tastes better" because the roots "are being fed a whole array of complex nutrients."

Martinez, 48, left the field of civil engineering 23 years ago to go into farming. Besides running Sweetwater, he also works as an organic farm inspector, spreading his expertise around the world.

"I enjoy gardening," said the baby boomer who was born to farm. From the earth shoes that support his slight frame to the snugly fitting baseball cap that barely contains a halo of wiry silver curls, he looks the part.

"This is what I really want to do," Martinez said on a recent afternoon as sunflowers waved in a breeze and a member picked her way through row upon row of plantings.

"I didn't really want to build bridges," Martinez said. But "I wanted to eat healthier and got into a larger and larger gardening scenario."

Sweetwater has been on the cutting edge of community supported agriculture, or CSA, since the concept was introduced to the United States about 20 years ago.

The goal of a CSA -- or food co-op -- is to create a partnership between farmers and consumers in order to cultivate more social and ecological responsibility, but Martinez said people also join for social reasons.

"It's good for people who are new to the area," Martinez said. '"They can develop a whole network of friends, like-minded people who eat organic and think organic."

At Sweetwater, families and individuals become members by agreeing to pay a seasonal fee that entitles them to share in the harvest. Of the 139 members, about 20 work the farm in exchange for a discount.

Growing season, which begins in September and ends in May, provides about 30 weeks' worth of produce for members and includes a seemingly endless supply of everything from beets, broccoli and Brussels sprouts to some not so typical vegetables, such as arugula, bok choi and kohlrabi. The farming community also grows 10 varieties of lettuce and numerous other vegetables and fruits.

Thursdays and Sundays are harvest days at the farm, which draws about 30 percent of its members from Pinellas County, a few from Pasco, and the rest from Hillsborough.

Although Martinez said it's still a financial struggle, the business has grown steadily over the years and now employs a full-time manager and two farm workers.

A chalkboard, sitting beneath a lean-to in front of crates of fresh green vegetables, lists the week's harvest, everything from succulent star fruit to cauliflower.

"It's a bargain," said member Chad Brown. It's also "good for the environment, good for everything. It's the right thing to do."

-- Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com.

* * *

Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, unique to this area, has 140 members and is currently full. However, a refundable $30 deposit will reserve a place on the waiting list.

Growing season begins in September and ends in May. Produce is available from November through mid June.

Vegetables grown at the farm include: mei choi, okra, squash, string beans, sweet peas -- and at least a dozen others -- as well as oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, carambola and papaya.

Memberships: $440 for 26 weeks; pick up vegetables every week. $250 half membership; pick up vegetables every other week.

Working membership: Discounts are given depending on number of hours worked, with a maximum of $250 rebate for full membership; $100 for half membership.

Harvest Days: Noon to 6:30 p.m. Thursday; noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday

What is Organic Farming?

Organic farming is the practice of growing foods without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or irradiation. Instead, organic farmers rely on a blend of old and new technologies and scientific research to keep the soil fertile, bugs at bay and the Earth's natural ecosystem in balance.

It works with nature to build and replenish the nutrients in the soil through crop rotations, composting and cultivation, which encourages healthy soils that produce healthy plants that are naturally more pest and disease resistant.

At Sweetwater, natural fertilizers such as seaweed and compost are used.

About 1 percent of the U.S. food supply is grown using organic methods. Organic foods can be found at natural health food stores, health food sections and produce departments of supermarkets, as well as through grower direct markets.

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