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Hillsborough sewage spill hits organic farm

TOWN 'N COUNTRY — About $6,000 worth of organic vegetables will be destroyed because of Sunday's 1.8-million gallon sewage spill into Sweetwater Creek, the farm's operator says.

Sweetwater Organic Farm plans to plow over lettuce, kale, arugula, bok choy and other vegetables this week after a broken pipeline sent raw sewage into neighboring Sweetwater Creek.

The community farm uses well water, and owners worried about fecal contamination, said Rick Martinez, who runs the farm.

"We want to assure all members of the public that we are not going to take any risks," he said.

A private water testing company will examine the wells for the next few months. Hillsborough County will reimburse Sweetwater for the cost of the tests.

Martinez said the farm's board had not decided whether to ask the county for compensation on the produce. The county worked with the city of Tampa to get a temporary water hookup from a hydrant near the farm.

Martinez said four years ago the farm would not have been able to survive a spill of this magnitude. The idea of destroying $6,000 worth of produce just weeks before the first harvest would have devastated the organization.

However, because of a partnership with two other organic farms, the loss will be minimized. Martinez said the Bern's Steak House Farm about three miles from Sweetwater and 400-acre Magnolia Organic Farm in Pasco County will increase production.

"We are fortunate that we had made that expansion this year and it came in handy a lot sooner than imagined," Martinez said.

Martinez warned there still would be a small impact on the 300 members expecting organic veggies Nov. 2 and for at least the first couple harvests. He said members expecting three heads of lettuce may get only one.

Thousands of people visit the farm each year for music concerts, school field trips and harvests, Martinez said.

Destroying the crops could set the Sweetwater operation back about 2 1/2 months. After the old crop is tilled, a ground cover will be planted to enrich the soil. About a month after that, the new crop will be planted.

Sunday's sewer break was the second within a month on a section of pipe recently installed as part of a $700,000 project to replace 2,600 feet of ductile-iron pipe with a thick-wall PVC type.

County water resource officials are investigating the breaks. They said they will replace about 900 feet of pipe near Hanley Road and Comanche Avenue. The work is covered under warranty.

Jared Leone can be reached at or (813) 269-5314.

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Hillsborough sewage spill hits organic farm 10/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 17, 2008 12:05pm]
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