Friday, June 22, 2018
News Roundup

Sweetwater organic farm offers weekly bounty in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG — Brian Smiley, operations manager for Sweetwater Organic Community Farm, laid out a colorful table of produce in the parking lot of the Body Electric Yoga, just around the bend from Fresh Market.

Bell peppers. Tomatoes. Carrots still wearing their green tops. Kohlrabi. A dainty head of lettuce. Turnips. Fennel. Dill. Daikon, the Korean cooking staple. And a bok choy variety called joi choi.

All had been freshly harvested that morning.

"Everything is seasonal," Smiley said. "I'd say in two weeks, we won't have the tomatoes and peppers anymore this winter, primarily leaving greens and root vegetables."

Recent cold weather, he added, has made the carrots, beets and kale crisper and sweeter. "The broccoli and cauliflower are also looking very good," he said.

Some of that also might be attributed to the tons of free manure trucked in from the Lowry Park Zoo — the offerings of horses, elephants, rhinoceri and other hooved animals, said a zoo spokeswoman — that Sweetwater turns into organic compost.

On this day, Smiley was on a mission. He had cards and pamphlets telling about Sweetwater, in Tampa's Town 'N Country area, and his presence in St. Petersburg.

"We are taking more memberships," he said.

The boxes of organic produce he brought over were to be picked up by St. Petersburg members of the 6-acre farm. Most of the 204 members are in Tampa. There are only 10 in St. Petersburg.

Jason Melton, a St. Petersburg lawyer, stopped by. The truth is, he said, it was his wife's idea. The couple, with a 20-month-old son and another on the way, began eating organic foods several years ago.

"I think that when people have kids, they sort of look at their lives and see what they can be doing differently," Melton said. "I'm glad we're doing it."

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture website, demand for organically produced goods "has grown continuously" since the department established national standards in 2002.

"Industry analysts estimate that U.S. organic food sales were $28 billion in 2012 … up 11 percent from 2011," the agency said. Fruits and vegetables, as well as dairy, are the top two organic food categories.

Former engineer Rick Martinez, 60, started Sweetwater, at 6942 W Comanche Ave., in 1993.

"I had been farming that property for a while and had started a consulting business that really took off and it involved travel all over the world," he said. "I had heard about these community farms, and I thought that might be a good idea after my years of work."

Martinez was president of the International Organic Inspectors Association, which played an integral role in helping the USDA establish standards for organic foods. He sees himself as an industry pioneer.

"I was really at the right place at the right time," he said.

The new pickup point in St. Petersburg gives Sweetwater a chance to refocus its efforts in the area, Martinez said.

"We've always had quite a big following in St. Petersburg, and we were even present at the Saturday Morning Market," he said.

"We really wanted to have a better presence than we've had in the past and better serve Pinellas County. We have had a lot of members come and go, so we really wanted to recapture some of those who are committed in their hearts but found the drive too much of an obstacle."

Lind Archipov, 41, her husband, Vadim, 40, and their three children, Alexandra, 11, Anika, 9, and Boris, 7, are new members. The family is vegetarian, and the children are homeschooled.

"We've been to the farm before. ... It really didn't justify all the organic produce to use the gas to drive over there. It wouldn't be worth it," Lind Archipov said.

The farm, which established its St. Petersburg pickup site a few weeks ago, offers half memberships that allow people to pick up produce every other week. Full memberships allow pickup every week.

Kaitlin Hennessy, Sweetwater's program coordinator, said full memberships cost $850, while half memberships are $475.

"We ask all of our members that you do four hours (annually) at the farm, and that could mean helping with the events. If you are good at grant writing, you can help with that," Hennessy said, adding that a volunteer program for farm internships and field trip guides offers produce in exchange for work.

Sweetwater has seven paid employees and four farm apprentices who live on-site and get a stipend.

Besides the new St. Petersburg location, pickups are offered on designated days at the Town 'N Country farm or Whole Foods in South Tampa.

Waiting in the Body Electric Yoga's parking lot, at 685 30th Ave N, with his pointer mix, Sadie, Smiley offered suggestions for using the array before him.

Archipov said she doesn't want anything to go to waste.

"I am realizing that soup is a good way to go. We eat vegetables with every meal, if we can," she said, mentioning that one of her daughters recently took a half-pint of tomatoes for her soccer game snack.

"My other daughter," she said, "brought a bunch of green peppers with some dressing."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.

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