PLANT CITY — The heat filled the air even as the storm clouds rolled in. Cherice Ridgeway picked through the vegetables on the table, lovebugs flitting about, occasionally landing on her as she examined a carrot. Her local grocery store might be bug-free with air conditioning and no threat of rain, but the 30-year-old from Brandon prefers to go straight to the source for her vegetables.
"It forces you to eat healthy," Ridgeway said. "I like that it's a variety of stuff, some of it I probably wouldn't have tried before."
Ridgeway and about 25 other families are part of a Community Supported Agriculture program at Steed Farms in Plant City. Commonly referred to as CSAs, programs such as this allow individuals to buy a membership to a farm. For one annual fee, they get a share of the crops each week.
The past decade ushered in a growing awareness in people of where their food comes from, said Becky Zarger, associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida.
As people ask more questions about what chemicals are used on their food, how farm workers are treated and where the food comes from, CSAs are becoming rapidly expanding alternatives that are cropping up not just in Tampa but all over the country.
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Stretching along County Road 39, just a few miles off State Road 60, the farm started as an old citrus grove. Shawn Steed purchased the land around 2002 and grew ornamental and citrus trees for a few years. But when the housing market crashed in 2008, so did the ornamental market, Shawn said. And some of the trees had developed citrus greening disease, a deadly sentence for trees.
With one daughter and more kids on the way, the Steeds knew they had to do something. Shawn's master's degree from the University of Florida is in vegetable production, so the couple transitioned to produce.
"It basically grew out of a personal garden, and we started having a couple people here and there asking us if we had any extra produce that we wanted to sell," Jennifer Steed said.
After the couple took a trip out to the Northeast where CSAs were more prevalent, they came back to their Florida farm and decided to see if anyone was interested.
They now have an acre of vegetables with two greenhouses, a small tree population and are leasing some property for cattle. They recently brought back their chicken coop, which was wiped out by predators last year.
A full-share membership costs $540 for 24 weeks — coming out to a $22.50 investment each week. Those who want to try the concept or don't need as much produce can buy a half share, which yields 12 pickups for $270.
Any money the Steeds earn from the CSA goes back into the farm, paying for everything from maintenance and the mortgage to a tractor and seeds.
Shawn works full time as a county extension agent in Hillsborough County for the University of Florida/IFAS Extension.
Though Steed Farms is much smaller than Goliaths such as Sweetwater across the bay, they continue to grow every year and serve families in East Hillsborough, from Riverview to Lakeland. Some members drive as far as 40 minutes each week to pick up their produce.
"It's not only about producing healthy, organic, easily accessible food," Zarger said. "People are also interested in the concept of building a community around food. I think it is definitely tied to building a community with people who have a shared interest in sustainability."
Their members are a diverse group, Jennifer said, from single people to families, stay-at-home moms to retirees and college students. The common denominator isn't income or location, but instead an appreciation for locally grown, quality produce.
"We felt early on that one of the premises of community supported agriculture is knowing your farmer and knowing your food," Jennifer said. "We wanted people to really be able to understand where that food is grown and where it comes from. You have to come out and see it when you get it."
However, the Steeds realized that's not always practical for some people on a Saturday. This season, they started a delivery service in a limited area. Still, most families enjoy coming out to the farm once a week.
"It's like a little road trip for us," said John Pridgeon, who comes with his wife and two sons from Lakeland each week. "I like walking around the fields and seeing what's growing. It's a peaceful escape."
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CSAs have been around since the 1970s, Zarger said. While they are more prevalent in certain parts of the country, such as the West coast, they've expanded throughout the entire United States.
But the concept of a CSA isn't just a few decades old — it's something people have been doing for thousands of years.
"People have often had to work together to produce food, especially if they are producing it themselves," Zarger said. "It's just a smart thing to do, to share the labor and the cost of that and share the produce."
The concept of CSAs and alternative food systems has grown rapidly since 2007 and 2008 in Tampa, Zarger said.
"Tampa has gone a long way towards developing a local-food culture and valuing farm-to-table restaurants and eating," Zarger said. "It's a kind of grassroots movement that has taken place in many other urban areas in the U.S. and this seems to be a time for Tampa to really think critically about where we get our food and what the impacts of those choices are."
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Members receive anywhere from 10 to 14 items a week, depending on what's growing well, what's in season and other natural factors. Some weeks, the crop might fall short. But if the weather's good, there might be an overflow.
"It's a risk reward system," Jennifer Steed said. "There's an off chance we could hit a virus and not have any pepper plants. But if there's a bountiful harvest of squash, as a member you might have enough squash for the whole year, but never get a pepper."
Last week, members got a mix of produce, including yellow squash, carrots, kale, tomatoes and oregano.
One of Denny Krahe's favorite parts is the variety of produce, especially the things he never would have picked out himself, such as kohlrabi and turnips.
"You learn to eat some different things," Krahe said. "You're exposed to different types of produce and learn different ways of preparing it."
Jennifer sends out emails to members each week with a list of upcoming produce so they can plan their other grocery shopping around their produce. She'll also share cooking tips and recipes, especially for some of the less common vegetables.
"If you're looking to be healthier, it's well worth the cost," Krahe said. "Exercise is very important, but if you eat poorly, most people don't have enough time in the day to exercise it away."
Health, variety and growing techniques aside, members love the way the food tastes.
"The flavors are just unbelievable," Pridgeon said. "It was picked this morning and we're going to eat it this week. It doesn't get more fresh than that."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.