How local farmers are finding space in crowded Pinellas County

Small crops are growing near industrial and residential areas across Florida’s most densely populated county. But the urban farmers who tend them are serious about their work.
Published July 10
Updated July 10

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Outside, cars rush by on slate-colored roads, passing parking lots and beige roofs.

The only clue that something is different: a yellow diamond sign with a silhouette of a person in a wide-brimmed hat on a tractor, warning drivers.

Next to the homes along Sunset Point Road, a fenced-off green space takes up nearly 6 acres. More than five kinds of sweet potatoes grow near the entrance. Farther back are structures for sprouting microgreens in trays, fields for lettuce and spinach, and towers of growing onions and herbs.

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Everything is green or black as soil, with the houses and streets out of sight.

“It’s an oasis,” said Jochen Essig, a farm manager at Life Farms in Clearwater.

The company has been in operation since 2012, when owner Rowland Milam and his friend Victor Heidman decided to take the plunge and buy land for an organic farm, something they’d talked about loosely since the late 1990s. It has eight employees.

The property at 2759 Woodring Dr. is one of a handful of Pinellas County farms that have found ways to bring traditional, outdoor farming methods to tight spaces in Florida’s most densely populated county.

Greens ‘n’ Things Urban Farm, owned by Eric Law, has three plots spread around the county, wedged into industrial and residential areas.

One of his lots sits across from boat and RV storage and next to Engineer Sales in St. Petersburg. The soil was so bad and full of gravel that Law had to rely on raised beds for the 5,000-square-foot lot.

But even in his smallest lot, the 600 square feet on the front lawn of his house, Law said he’s able to get good organic produce.

“I know how much food can be produced here and it’s a lot,” he said.

After Law, 31, left a sales job about two years ago, he fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and started learning how to grow food. Unlike plants he had failed to keep alive before, he said learning the proper seasons and techniques helped his crops thrive. He expanded soon afterward.

“I know I’m not going to get rich doing this but it’s an important thing,” he said. “Everybody has to eat, and there isn’t any local food production.”

Because Law’s plots are spaced out, he doesn’t often invite visitors by. Still, people see the plot sandwiched between the gray buildings and looming RVs and ask questions, or they stop him at the farmer’s market to ask about their own garden troubles.

At Life Farms, Milam wanted to get a space in the county where education would be a main goal and where people can see how food grows.

“It doesn’t grow in a McDonald’s or a grocery store,” he quipped.

Milam said if he had set up the farm in another county with more abundant space people wouldn’t drive out to see it. Instead he found the plot of land along Sunset Point Road that used to be for horses. The farm hosts lessons and educational tours for people of all ages, Milam said.

Since it was founded, Life Farms has run a “community supported agriculture” program that allows local families to pay up front for the convenience of receiving a variety of vegetables and herbs seasonally. The program is currently accepting more members, Essig said.

Along with supplying food to program members, the farm works with local restaurants and markets. Law, too, partners with restaurants, a jump from when he got rid of his produce by sending friends and family a list of what was fresh and available.

“The demand grows every year,” Milam said. “There are people that are passionate about it and people who want to eat good.”

Chef Anne Kearney at the Oak & Ola restaurant in Tampa gets a variety of greens from Life Farms, including a pea shoot that she said “is just like having a spring pea in your mouth.”

“I’m selling to locals, I’m buying from locals,” she said. “We’re all providing for each other.”

Pam Sindlinger, president of the Pinellas County Farm Bureau, and her husband used their farm near St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport to support community programs in the low-income area, she wrote in an email. The Sindlingers were active volunteers at the High Point Neighborhood Family Center and ran a community supported agriculture program that used to feed 110 families, she said.

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, though, the farm's infrastructure was damaged — shade houses flattened, the irrigation system hit by lightning, the chicken coop, trees and crops all destroyed. The repairs continue today.

Sheridan Boyle, sustainability coordinator with the city of Clearwater, said it’s great for an urban area like Pinellas County to have green space, and having productive green space is even better.

Local farms reduce the amount of transportation needed to get food from farm to table, she said. In Clearwater, transportation is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The knowledge of small farmers is also vital to a community, she said. “It raises some of the awareness we’ve lost as urbanization progresses.”

Contact Romy Ellenbogen at or rellenbogen@tampabay.com. Follow @Romyellenbogen.

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