Saturday, June 23, 2018
Business

Suncoast Co-op cultivates thriving organic business model

The company that won the 2013 Sustainable Business Award from Earth Charter US has no office building or employee payroll.

Indeed, the workspace for members of the Suncoast Co-op is the land where they grow organic foods and flowers. Their salary comes from the fruits, vegetables and household goods they cull respectfully from the earth — and the prolonged health, sanctity and sustainability of their families, their communities and the planet.

"We're as green as it gets — we don't even have a building! And we're 100 percent volunteer-driven," said Audrey Voss, co-president of the Suncoast Co-op, a growing network of people from Pasco and Pinellas counties who grow their own food and create homemade goods ranging from candles to dog biscuits to soaps, all using organic methods that are free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

"We have lots of different goals," said Voss, of Tarpon Springs, "but basically we want to make good food available to the people of New Port Richey."

Earth Charter US, a Tampa Bay steering committee of a national effort devoted to environmental preservation and community sustainability, last month awarded the Suncoast Co-op its 2013 Sustainable Business Award "for the co-op's business practices that take care of people, the planet, and equitably build community wealth." The group began with co-founder Rick Blouin and a few other organic farmers who wanted to educate others on growing food naturally, then developed into a co-op where members could literally sell the fruits of their labor.

"We're going back to the days of the Victory Gardens in World War II. We're having old-fashioned 'barn raisings' to help growers start their gardens and micro farms," said co-op co-president Eric Stewart of Holiday. "And we're teaching people that urban farming is a viable career option."

Aside from putting food on their own plates, Suncoast Co-op members sell what they grow, reaping 90 percent of the proceeds from their sales at various local venues.

"We don't do this to get rich," said Sue Andreski of Holiday, a Suncoast grower and member of its planning committee. "Gardening has always been my passion. This is my dream job."

The co-op participates in the New Port Richey Fresh Fridays market (5 to 9 p.m. the first Friday of the month at Railroad Square) and the Tasty Tuesdays market (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesdays at the New Port Richey Public Library).

The library is an official co-op partner of Tampa Bay Organics, based in Lutz. Suncoast Co-op is a secondary supplier of this program, and their customers also can custom order boxes of fresh produce that are delivered each Tuesday at the library.

"While the library's co-op is independent of Suncoast, our weekly market, 'Tasty Tuesdays,' is quite happy to have Suncoast as a recent participant," said associate library director Ann Scott. "The more local organic growers, the better for our community."

Suncoast operates its own weekly pick up and Farmers Market from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays at West Pasco Habitat for Humanity, 4131 Madison St., New Port Richey. Here patrons can retrieve preordered boxes of fresh produce. And they can browse tables that offer everything from organically grown pickles and almonds, zucchini and coffee, herb mixes, blueberry muffins and even candles made of soy. Plus they can enjoy organic pound cake, coffees and tea, root beer and other treats at the Suncoast Cafe.

"Suncoast Co-op has allowed me to get my word out — and my candles," said co-op member Roberta Waterworth, owner of Aesthetic Candles of Port Richey.

Market customer and organic gardener Kelly Rivenburgh of New Port Richey said she appreciates the convenience and the health benefits of the organic market.

"You hear a lot these days about how what we eat can start the terrible chain of events that can help lead to health conditions, everything from allergies to Alzheimer's," she said. "It's scary. This is why I buy and grow organic foods. Before the Suncoast market opened, the closest market was in St. Petersburg — that's a drive."

Customers also can pick up their orders from Simply Fresh Produce and Peanuts from 1 to 2 p.m. Saturdays at 1942 S Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs. And orders can be placed online at suncoast coop.locallygrown.net. Customers can choose from fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, milled products, flowers, candles, herbs, baked goods and essential oils. A box could include anything from basil to black cherry, sunflowers to free-range chickens.

"Here is where people buy good food for their families," said co-op co-president Barbara Sullo, a retired nurse from New Port Richey. "It's cheap, it's locally grown, and it's healthy. What could be better?"

 
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