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Brother, can you spare a tomato? Ruminations on farming in a recession

You might think the executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District is a big shot — somebody who can throw his or her weight around and tell you what's what.

Well, not really. The district reaches into 16 counties, but its authority is limited to water. Then there's the governing board to answer to, and state lawmakers who can make your life miserable.

Sonny Vergara is a Brooksville native who ran the district from 1997 to 2003 and was at the center of a landmark agreement that ended the so-called water wars.

Even so, I remember him, like most other executive directors, as cautious, even tight-lipped.

That's why, after I wrote about the increased popularity of vegetable gardening a few weeks ago, I was surprised that he sent me a passionate e-mail on the subject. And that he was willing to elaborate when I visited him on his 20-acre property in Spring Lake.

Basically, he said, when the world seems to be falling apart, people want to grow their own food.

"This government and this way of life is very ephemeral. It can very easily go away,'' said Vergara, 66. "Financial institutions. The water supply. The food supply. Everything we thought of as solid is very much in question. People are thinking: Holy smokes! I better plant a garden.''

I'd say there are other, related reasons. Gardeners hope to save money by raising vegetables, which, by the way, is not easy. There's also the trend (not fad, hopefully) for locally grown produce.

But, on this topic, I'll defer to Vergara, whose expertise was obvious from the time I drove into his driveway.

In his final years at the district, he started thinking he should do something more with his pasture than lease it out for grazing cattle.

On the suggestion of his wife, Pam, who teaches at Hillsborough Community College and had once taken a course on brewing beer, he decided to plant muscadine grapes and make wine.

So that's the first thing you see: 500 carefully pruned vines stretched along taut wires. Trained, they call such vines, and these looked as though they had been worked over by a drill sergeant.

At first, using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Vergara was surprised to get a decent harvest. Last year, he produced enough grapes for a U-pick season. He now uses only natural soil treatments, such as blood and feather meal. He hopes to receive organic certification and to sell grapes and juice commercially.

Just to the south are a couple of rows of tomatoes, squash and okra — also organically grown — his symbolic hedge against environmental and economic collapse.

In a nearby utility building, the counter was crowded with juice fermenting in 5-gallon jugs, the carbon dioxide gurgling through vapor locks. The cupboards were packed with bottles of wine, including one called Withlacoochee Red, which is the driest, most complex muscadine wine I've ever sampled. Without a license to sell wine, he can only give it away, so I suggest you stop by and act chummy.

The last stop on the tour was his veranda, which looks out over a bowl of pasture, cows dozing under oaks and, on the day of my visit, a stunning blue sky. Is it the garden that brings peace, or retirement and, as he said, "having no constraints whatsoever"?

I don't know, but from here the world appeared to be in pretty good shape.

Brother, can you spare a tomato? Ruminations on farming in a recession 04/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 20, 2009 6:13pm]
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