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Farmer's Market

Planting the seed

Two young men work their way through school by running a queen palm tree farm.

By JAY CRIDLIN
Published August 15, 2003

APOLLO BEACH - Oliver Brooks and Alexander Saumell could have paid for their educations like most other students.

They could have taken jobs in a bookstore. They could have worked the night shift in a coffee house, or answered phones in a university office.

But Brooks, 19, and Saumell, 21, aren't your average students. They manage Meadow View Estates, a 34-acre queen palm tree farm in Apollo Beach.

Brooks owns the farm with his father Gary, and Saumell is his right-hand man. Both are students. Brooks will return to the University of South Florida this fall, and Saumell is taking classes at Erwin Technical Center in Tampa.

At such young ages, "it's sometimes hard to convince people of your credibility," Brooks says. "But it seems like everybody wants to help out a couple of guys going through college. Once they know that you know what you're talking about, you do a lot of business."

The sign in front of Meadow View Estates reads "Queen Palms U-Pick," a concept that Gary Brooks said was designed to make choosing a palm tree feel like choosing a Christmas tree.

"You go in, pick out a big, fat, lush tree," he said. "Then it's dug fresh."

With long, drooping fronds and trunks of reasonable height, queen palms are popular with homeowners and landowners looking to spruce up their property.

The Apollo Beach Beautification Committee and Apollo Beach Civic Association recently purchased 28 trees to install around the community.

Chairwoman Mary Lou Luce said the proprietors' young ages didn't bother her a bit.

"I've dealt with the boys more than I have with the dad," she said. "People are supporting them because they do a good job."

Meadow View Estates is located just south of Tampa Electric Co., which actually owns the land, but leases it out to people willing to tend the grounds and put up a small farm.

Like many large landowners, TECO is able to take advantage of Florida's "greenbelt" tax laws, which provide substantial tax breaks for any property being used for commercial agricultural purposes.

Thanks to Meadow View Estates, TECO paid only $3,614 in taxes on the two parcels - upon which the farm sits - which have a combined market value of $294,018.

The Brooks family, which lives a short walk away, took over the lot in 1997 for a nominal fee of $50 per acre. Gary Brooks cleared out the overgrown land and planted queen palms.

Oliver, then a student at Riverview High School, helped his father with the tree; Saumell, who attended East Bay, came on as a farmhand.

Because of the low lease rate and small paid staff, Meadow View Estates supported itself fairly easily.

The Brooks family declined to discuss their income, but Oliver said the farm can sell hundreds of trees a year, at prices ranging from $55 for a 6-foot tree to $248 for a 16-footer. In the last month alone, the farm has sold about 70 trees. Delivery and planting fees can be another $100 or more.

Gary promised Oliver that when he turned 18, he'd become an equal partner in Meadow View Estates. Now, Saumell works for Oliver, and they run the farm together.

Even though they plan to take college courses this fall - Saumell hopes to become a surgical technician, Brooks plans to study business - they both find farm work relaxing.

"It's nice being out in the sun," Saumell says.

Says Brooks: "It's more of a hobby than a business. But it goes both ways, and it helps pay for college."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com

Meadow View Estates

WHAT: A 34-acre "U-pick" queen palm tree farm

WHERE: 505 Elsberry Road, Apollo Beach

PHONE: 368-0813

PRICES: Range from $55 for a 6-foot palm to $248 for a 16-foot palm. Delivery and planting costs vary.

HOURS: By appointment.

[Last modified August 14, 2003, 09:38:51]

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