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Seeds of urban farming sprout in bay area

A year ago, Andrew Wolfe had a typical yard: a half-acre of grass and a tree.

Now it's less lawn, more farm.

His Seminole yard houses 16 ducks, 16 chickens, 400 tilapia and seven beehives. He built a greenhouse, started a garden and planted four citrus trees — all near a busy street with restaurants, shops and a Baptist church.

He calls it his Freedom Farm, and he's not the only local farmer forgoing the country for the city. Clearwater grandparents harvest vegetables on 3 acres near Ulmerton Road. A Carrollwood man plans to farm on a former water treatment plant site. And the Tampa City Council is creating a zoning category to pave the way for more urban community gardens.

Nationwide, the urban farming movement is growing. Detroit's mayor has made it a key piece of his plans for his city's future. Cities such as Davenport, Iowa, are planting gardens on city property, providing free food for locals. A publisher recently launched a new magazine called Urban Farm.

Overall, the National Gardening Association estimates that farmers markets have more than doubled since the 1990s. Tampa's community-supported agriculture pioneer, Rick Martinez of Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, estimates that farms like his have increased from 100 to about 2,000 nationwide in the past two decades.

Martinez started Sweetwater in 1993, and it's thriving. Since then, he's helped others in the area start their own urban farms.

"The urban farm movement is picking up steam," he said. "We're so dependent on food from faraway places, and now people have a yearning to be more closely involved with their food."

A Tampa developer has taken note. In an old trolley repair building in Tampa Heights, Darren Booth grows peppers near a window in his office. He's the project manager for the Heights development, and he has plans for garden terraces, raised plant beds and a rooftop garden in the planned community.

"Fresh tastes better," he said. "I have a vision of people going out to their garden and picking tomatoes and then swapping them for other vegetables with their neighbors."

But growing on urban land provides unique challenges. The biggest issue is often the lack of space.

To deal with this, Valrico folk herbalist Willow LaMonte grows plants in layers to make the most of her back yard. A Thai hibiscus drapes her mango and lychee trees, which shade low-growing ginger and herbs.

Wolfe and the owners of Gateway Organic Farm in Clearwater plan to grow climbing plants, such as grapes, on their fences. Wolfe even grows mint hydroponically in a platform suspended over his tilapia pond. It's a symbiotic relationship because the herbs filter the pond water.

In Tampa, Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm's owners grow vegetables in vertically stacked systems, which allow them to raise 20,000 plants on less than half an acre.

Urban farmers also have an advantage. They're close to restaurants and homes, so they can sell directly to consumers. Farming used to be about wide open spaces.

Now it's all about "location, location, location," said Pamela Sindlinger of Gateway.

Cathy Hume, who opened Urban Oasis on Linebaugh Avenue with her husband a year ago, said their location is one of their biggest assets. Their farm is sandwiched between Town 'N Country and Carrollwood.

"I'm in a place where people can see me and stop in," she said. "I'm easily accessible for the busy housewife or working mother. Making a trip to (the) country is pretty overwhelming with the schedules we keep."

While backyard gardening isn't new, using such a small space for intensive, commercial uses is virgin territory for many, so farmers are learning from each other. Sweetwater's Martinez helped launch Gateway a few years ago, and now Gateway's owners are helping Wolfe.

Pamela Sindlinger said she sought help from the Pinellas County extension a few years ago, but she found it didn't know much about setting up a small, urban farm. She said she didn't blame it.

"They're more concerned with lawns," she said.

However, Sarasota County extension agent Robert Kluson is leading the way with urban farming classes, which started a couple of years ago because of residents' demand. He plans to partner with the county's Health Department to provide cheap, healthy food.

"Because when we say, 'Let's make some fresh food available to these folks and improve their nutrition,' that's not the whole solution because they can't afford it," he said. "The whole reason they're eating the way they are is because it's cheap."

In Tampa, city officials are focusing on community gardens. The number of these gardens has dramatically increased, with new plots in Seminole Heights, Carrollwood and Palmetto Beach.

That's not to say there won't be city-led efforts in the near future, said City Council member Mary Mulhern. She's not writing off a future that includes growing fruits and vegetables on city property, offering free produce for passers-by to pick free of charge.

But Mulhern said that would be up to the city's Parks Department, which is not working just now on anything like that.

Instead, officials are creating a zoning category that would pave the way for communities to lease otherwise unusable city-owned land for gardens. The city would evaluate each parcel as it's approached by residents, and it would lease it for a small fee.

"We're focusing on working with the people in the community," Mulhern said. "That seems to be the way we can actually get something done."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

>> Fast Facts

Local urban farms:

• Freedom Farm, Seminole, myspace.com/tasteoffreedomfarm, (727) 439-4885.

• Gateway Organic Farm, Clearwater, gatewayorganicfarm.com, (727) 244-0724.

• Grow, a Tampa community gardening organization, grow813.ning.com.

• Seminole Heights Community Gardens, seminoleheightscg.ning.com.

• Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, Tampa, sweetwater-organic.org, (813) 887-4066.

• Urban Oasis, Tampa, urbanoasisfarm.com, (813) 293-3276.

• VISTA Gardens, Carrollwood Village, carrollwoodvillage.com, click on VISTA Gardens, (813) 842-7066.

Seeds of urban farming sprout in bay area 03/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 13, 2010 8:54pm]

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