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Urban harvest: A farm in Pinellas County?

People live in Pinellas. Food grows in Pasco and Hillsborough. But one couple decided to farm where they live. Could it be the future?

By Becky Bowers, Times Staff Writer
Published January 14, 2008


Pamela Sindlinger fills a wagon with produce from the field at Sweetwater Pinellas/Gateway Nursery. Her organic farm at 6000 150th Ave. N in Clearwater is hemmed in by mobile homes on one side and houses on the other.
photo
[Ted McLaren | Times]
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[Ted McLaren | Times]
Just-picked shallots rest on a tray waiting to be picked up at Sweetwater Pinellas/Gateway Nursery.

Preserved for a purpose
A former nursery in Clearwater, the Sindlingers' $472,800 property has a taxable value of $103,800 because of its agricultural exemption. The classification is now so rare in Pinellas County that chief deputy property appraiser Pam Dubov says, “it's not a subject that anyone here deals with very often.” Farms have simply “been going away,” says David Walker, a supervisor at the Planning Department. Farmers have opted to become “instant millionaires,” he says, selling out to developers.
photo
[Becky Bowers | Times]

Near the junction of U.S. 19 and Ulmerton Road in Clearwater, in the shadow of condos, wedged between a mobile home park and a wall of houses, are tidy rows of green.

Organic heads of lettuce nestle in rich composted mounds. Carrots hide their orange sweetness. Shallots wait to be picked.

Pinellas County is the most densely populated in the state. While Florida's vegetable harvest ranks fourth in the nation, with 2002 data showing more than 4,000 farms in Pasco and Hillsborough alone, Pinellas long ago gave up plants for people.

That makes Pamela and Hank Sindlinger'snew 3.5-acre farm a small organic oddity. The Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association doesn't even have a Pinellas member.

But some experts say it's exactly the direction the county should head, toward tiny oases of urban green.

"People think that farming is something that happens outside of the city," says Devesh Nirmul, who works on urban sustainability for Pinellas County Extension. "But when you think about it from a sustainability perspective, we need more food here in the city."

For the Sindlingers, growing food where they live was a choice about how to raise their grandchildren. They pray it's also a good business decision.

Farming was not part of the Sindlingers' master plan. While they grew up on family farms in Ohio, they lived a corporate life for 20 years in Atlanta, packing away savings to retire at 55 and travel the world. Then they found themselves raising his daughter's children, Steven and Stephanie.

"We realized we needed to get back to basics, and raise the children the way we were raised," says Pamela Sindlinger, 56.

They had bought a small house in Clearwater to accommodate Hank's job as a national sales manager; the company he worked for had been bought by a Pinellas company. They decided to leave Atlanta for good. They bought the 3.5-acre plant nursery next door, a skinny strip just 100 feet wide. Pamela, who always had large herb gardens, imagined a marketable bounty of organic flowers and herbs.

Reality was more daunting. They bought the nursery in 2004, right before a hurricane. It ripped the covers off of the property's four greenhouses.

"We thought we had lost our ever-loving minds," Pamela Sindlinger says.

Layers of growing cloth covered starved, sandy land. Tenants who had packed the space with 5- and 10-gallon pots of trees and shrubs went out of business, leaving everything - cluttered greenhouses, broken equipment, a rusted RV - behind.

Retirement was one thing. Covering a monthly mortgage payment of about $4,500 on the land and a storage building was another.

One point leaned in their favor: The parcel's designation as agricultural helped with the property tax bill. Instead of more than $9,500 in 2007, they owed about $2,100.

The rarity of that designation in Pinellas County also inspired them. When developers offered $1.25-million to turn their slice of land into condos, they said no. It wasn't easy: They had paid less than $400,000. But they say the lure of preserving a spot of green space, and farm life for their grandchildren, won out.

"We couldn't think of what else we'd want to do," Pamela Sindlinger says.

Hank's former colleagues taunted. The 55-year-old had been traveling the country as sales manager for Eidschun Engineering, a small Clearwater company, selling high-tech equipment like printed circuit boards.

"We talk, and it's like, 'Hank, you're 50-something years old and you're out there digging holes in the dirt and sweating like a dog,'" says Al Stein, Eidschun's general manager.

Hank Sindlinger's answer to all of them: "This is a whole lot more fun."

Meanwhile, Pamela was reaching out to anyone who could help: Pinellas County Extension, the Planning Department, the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

She met Rick Martinez, executive director of the nonprofit Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Tampa. Sweetwater cultivates fruit and vegetables on small patches framed by urban life, selling memberships each season for a share of the weekly harvest. They struck a deal worth $1,000 a month. The Sindlingers would raise vegetables for 70 families on two gardens, one 200 by 80 feet, and another 80 by 80. Memberships sold out.

For the Sindlingers, it's a beginning.

Community-supported agriculture is "where our heart is," Pamela says.

They plan to reclaim more of their property from tangles of old nursery plants and growing cloth, and turn it with dump loads of aged manure from a nearby horse stable. They hope to sell off the leftover pots of trees and trays of orchids. They see a future in agritourism, hosting tours and teaching classes in a professional kitchen they hope to build. They would contract to grow specialty foods for local restaurants.

They already have a prospective customer. Chris Ponte, chef and owner of nearby Cafe Ponte, had publicly lamented the lack of local produce. The Sindlingers dropped off a basket of goodies from their first harvest.

Last week, he called back. He'll bring a chef from his restaurant to the farm as they plan their spring menu. He's salivating over the idea of planted-to-order herbs, fresh-pulled beets, maybe a rare watercress.

"Just getting local produce in your back yard is pretty fantastic," he says.

He hopes the collaboration blooms, imagining a weekly farmer's market outside his restaurant.

The Sindlingers appreciate his dreams. They see a future in their misfit urban strip.

"I just go down and I squint my eyes, and see the vision," Pamela Sindlinger says.

Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com or 727 893-8859.

Pinellas: People, not plants

Agriculture feeds Florida's economy, but it's small potatoes in Pinellas. It's not clear how many farms still exist since the building boom, but here's a glance from the most recent numbers:

0.03 Percent of parcels - 121 out of 433,000 - classified for agriculture. Most of those are plant nurseries.

111 Farms in the county, according to the 2002 census.

81 Farms less than 9 acres.

14 Average size of farm in acres.

83 Farms with sales of less than $24,999.

1 County in Florida ranked lower for farms.

1 Rank in Florida of the county's population density.

Sources: County Appraiser's Office, Planning Department, and Bureau of Economic and Business Research

To learn more

To contact Pamela and Hank Sindlinger about their farm, e-mail pmsnursery@aol.com or call (727) 244-0724. For more information about Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, which is sold out of this season's memberships but keeps a waiting list, visit www.sweetwater-organic.org or call (813) 887-4066.

[Last modified January 14, 2008, 11:24:41]


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