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Buying into the organic food chain

A fresh produce co-op springs forth from a small herb farm in Wesley Chapel.

Published April 23, 2007

[Times photo: Stephen J. Coddington]
Rose Kalajian helps to weigh produce for club member Melissa Faust of Wesley Chapel. Membership in Kalajian's club is $25 a year, plus a few hours of volunteer work each month. "We're bringing a community of people together," Kalajian says.


People kept asking Rose Kalajian where they could get fresh, organic produce in the area - something she claims is somewhat hard to come by in these parts. So, Kalajian, an herbalist who owns a 7-acre herb farm and health clinic called the Natural Health Hut in Wesley Chapel, decided to start her own produce club.

"We're bringing a community of people together," said Kalajian, who treats people and animals with her homegrown and handmade herbal tinctures, teas and other products. She also gives workshops on raw food, making herbal medicines, cosmetics, cat and dog health care, and other subjects.

The organic produce club started last month. Its 17 members pick what they want from a list more than a few dozen items long - from the standards like Yukon Gold potatoes, garlic and celery to the things not so mainstream, like Swiss chard, Medjool dates and Lacinato kale. Kalajian puts in the order from Global Organics, a certified organic produce distributor in Sarasota.

The delivery truck comes to her house - which is on the farm - on Thursdays and members pick up their goods on Fridays.

Keri Upchurch, a 21-year-old club member from Wesley Chapel, said she eats organic to clean out all the junk food she has eaten.

"I want to help myself be healthy."

Organic food - which has many definitions, but is basically food grown on land free of chemicals - has gone from a hippy-dippy, tie-dye, patchouli-scented image to glossy mainstream in recent years as consumers are becoming more aware of nutrition. They want to know where their food comes from and what happened to it before it got there.

Enthusiasts swear that organic food makes them healthier. But, the United States Department of Agriculture will not say whether organic food is safer or more nutritious, only that it is different from conventional food in the way it is grown, handled and processed.

Regardless, the trend is booming.

Organic retail has grown 17 to 20 percent each year since 1997, according to Packaged Facts, the publishing division of In 2004, the U.S. organic market was worth more than $15.4-billion and represented 3 percent of food sales. It is estimated that organic food and beverages will reach $32.3-billion by 2009.

In the Tampa Bay area, most grocery stores now carry an organic produce section and hormone-free meats. There are locally owned and chain natural food stores, markets and farms, such as Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Tampa, where you can buy directly - as a nonmember on Sundays or as a member for a yearly fee - from the people who farm the land.

In 2005, the United States Department of Agriculture reported that all 50 states had certified organic farmland - a first for this country. California tops the list with the most certified organic cropland - more than 220,000 acres. Florida has nearly 8,500 acres.

Kay Rice, a 72-year-old produce club member who lives in San Antonio, said that when she was growing up, her family got their vegetables from their back garden. They would get meat, eggs, raw milk, butter and cheese from farmers in town.

"Everything was organic back then," Rice said. "We just didn't know it."

Membership in Kalajian's club is $25 a year, plus a few hours of volunteer work each month (such as operating the register during pickup time).

Orders now are placed every two weeks. But as the club grows, Kalajian plans to expand it to every week. Produce is local when available.

Member Melissa Faust likes it because with most co-ops, all members get the same thing; but with this, you never get what you don't want. Plus, she loves any excuse to come out to the farm.

"It's a little piece of paradise in the city," Faust said.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at or (813) 909-4609.

[Last modified April 23, 2007, 00:40:27]

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