A week ago Saturday, this empty, dusty 3-acre lot bordered by overgrown vines and a tangle of trees in suburban Carrollwood Village didn't look much like a thriving organic farm.
But a new nonprofit group of homegrown farmers hopes to be harvesting tomatoes and lettuce there by November, with a new farmers' market to open only a couple of months after that.
The more than 50 volunteers power-sawed down trees, removed branches, discarded junk like old pipes and cleaned up the former Hillsborough County water site to make way for Vista Gardens, an organic hydroponic farm where vegetables will be grown vertically to save space and water.
The farm prep work wasn't being done on a field outside Plant City. The heavy lifting unfolded in the midst of hard-core suburbia in north Tampa where three-story condo units, middle-class houses and an assisted living center border the rented farm land off South Village Drive.
The nonprofit is called Vista Gardens, or Village Institute for Sustainable Technologies & Agriculture, with its members buying shares to finance its launch and operation. It's part of a growing green movement of consumers who want organic vegetables that are grown literally in their back yards.
Their motivation is economic and environmental.
"People need to have an awareness of the cost of food coming from across the country to supermarkets. It completely surprised me," said farm member Joy Rupe, a local personal chef who bought a half-share membership in Vista Gardens.
As a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, Vista Gardens will charge half-share and full-share fees to members, who agree to work at least four hours per growing season and take home an impressive bounty of vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce, squash, cucumbers, zucchini, watermelon and onions, said Kess Evans, the farm manager.
A half-share costs $355 to $614, while a full share is $615 to $999.
Vista Gardens will use that revenue to help underwrite the launch of the farm, which Evans estimated would cost $70,000 to start up and $12,000 a month to run. Vista Gardens also wants to build classrooms and a farmers' market, which would cost an additional $20,000, Evans said.
"People want to know what's in the food chain. They want to buy produce where they can see where it's grown," he said.
In this age of green economics, Vista Gardens plans to invite other ecofriendly businesses to exhibit organic products, such as detergents, gardening supplies and lotions, Evans said.
Personal chef Rupe will use her Vista Gardens vegetables for her catering business, Comfort Cuisine. And she hopes she can hold workshops at the farm on how to prepare the harvested vegetables.
Vista Gardens will be modeled after another nearby organic hydroponic farm, Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm on West Linebaugh Avenue. Hydroponic farms rely on growing plants vertically in a stacking system that uses less land and water and cuts out weeds, bugs and shovels.
That's why Vista Gardens will not need large farm equipment like a big tractor, said Bill West, the Vista Gardens president who fired up a power saw to clear trees during Saturday's cleanup.
Dave Hume, owner of Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm, said the vertical style allows him to grow 20,000 plants on less than half an acre. His organic vegetable prices are competitive if not cheaper than buying organic vegetables in big supermarket chains such as Publix, he said. For example, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers cost $3.49 a pound at his farm, while lettuce is 40 cents an ounce, he said.
"Consumers are looking for a quality product," said Hume, who opened his private farm business the same day as the Vista Gardens cleanup. "People can pick a fresh tomato here instead of wondering where it came from."
Meanwhile, Vista Gardens' Community Supported Agriculture nonprofit setup is reminiscent of the Sweetwater Community Organic Farm in Tampa. Sweetwater, founded in 1995, has 250 members and supporters on a six-acre farm along Sweetwater Creek. There are more than 1,000 CSA farms across the country, with Sweetwater being one of the most prominent in west Florida. Sweetwater also helped launch a CSA farm in Clearwater.
The roots of the Vista Gardens farm were sown a decade ago when local residents in the Carrollwood Village area discussed the north Tampa community's future, including dealing with traffic issues, building a cultural center…and perhaps starting a local garden, West said.
The nonprofit group struck a deal with Hillsborough County to lease 3.5 acres. With the land cleared, the first vegetables should be planted this summer and ready to be picked a couple of months later.
"In a supermarket, it could be four to five weeks (when a vegetable was first harvested.) Here you pick it at our farm and the food is today," Evans said. "There were recall notices for spinach and consumers want to be sure it's safe. Ultimately, our aim is to teach people to better use the environment."