Organic farm and its weekly market survive sewer spill

At Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, Trenton Tucker, foreground, hung around with his aunt, Janie McGrew, right, as she shopped for fresh produce Sunday at the weekly organic farmer’s market near Hanley Road and Hillsborough Avenue.

GEN YAMAGUCHI | Times

At Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, Trenton Tucker, foreground, hung around with his aunt, Janie McGrew, right, as she shopped for fresh produce Sunday at the weekly organic farmer’s market near Hanley Road and Hillsborough Avenue.

TAMPA — The offerings at the weekly Sweetwater Organic Farmer's Market were as eclectic and plentiful as ever on Sunday.

In its odd location in Town 'N Country near Hanley Road and Hillsborough Avenue, patrons could eat "raw banana ice cream" while listening to live folk music. They could buy goat's milk soap, a print of Barack Obama giving a campaign speech in Dunedin or a book on how mushrooms can save the world.

And yes, they could still pick through baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables, despite a Sweetwater Creek sewage spill that affected more than $40,000 of the crops just before harvest.

"It hurt like heck," said Rick Martinez, the Sweetwater farm's founder. "But through some freak stroke of luck, we were prepared."

In July, Hillsborough County replaced 2,600 feet of sewer pipe in the area. A section of the line broke in September, spilling 200,000 gallons of sewage into Sweetwater Creek near Hanley Road and Comanche Avenue.

A month after that, another piece of the new pipe failed, spewing 1.8-million gallons of sewage into Sweetwater Creek.

The spill affected the water supply that irrigates the 6-acre Sweetwater farm and most of the crops had to be destroyed. Fortunately, said Martinez, the 13-year-old organic co-op farm recently expanded to prepare for selling commercially.

The Sweetwater produce offered at Sunday's market came from its partnership with two organic farms: the Bern's Steak House Farm about 3 miles from Sweetwater and the Magnolia Organic Farm in Pasco County.

Sweetwater farm is using city water to irrigate until the well water is deemed safe again, which Martinez believes will be in a week or two. The county has been testing the water weekly.

The Sweetwater farm filed a claim with the county to recoup losses from the September and October spills. For now, commercial expansion is on hold, but the Sunday market is as lively as it has been for the last three years.

As people entered the market, they could see rows of lettuce growing in Filtrexx Soxx (sort of a sausage casing filled with compost soil) and irrigated by rain barrels — clearly immune from sewage spills.

Lindsay Strohecker of Dunedin was enjoying her third week as a vendor selling tie-dyed baby clothing under a small tent.

"It's gotten better every week," she said. "I didn't even know there was a sewage spill."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

Organic farm and its weekly market survive sewer spill 12/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 23, 2008 3:47pm]

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