e_SDLqThey’re the James Dean of the garden," Ray Wunderlich III says. He is giving a tour of a plot in Edgemoor, where leaves of lettuce sprout from the damp earth in vibrant, almost unreal, shades of chartreuse and plum.
"Beautiful," he says, "but fast life."
We’re standing over romaine now, already passing kale, dill, cilantro, Swiss chard and tatsoi, a stalky, leafy, mustardy green a lot like bok choy. In one corner of the garden are baby tomatoes the size of fingernails, which some garden volunteers eat like candy. Next to them, bigger tomatoes ripen under a gray sky.
"Tomatoes are always an experiment," Wunderlich says. "They won’t be controlled — just organized."
At 116 Hampton Ave. in St. Petersburg, the plot is one of four that Wunderlich, 57, operates through Wunderfarms, a collective of organic community gardens with ties to the Friends of Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. Since 2011, when he founded Wunderfarms’ first garden at Boyd Hill, Wunderlich’s mission has been the same: to promote urban agriculture while giving back to the community.
The gardens are structured to follow the community-supported agriculture model, though Wunderlich calls his version "CSA lite." According to the model, farms are supported by individuals who buy shares of the harvest and then receive their portion, usually based on weight, on designated harvest days. While Wunderlich does have a few shareholders and sells to restaurants like Squeeze Juice Works and Love Food Central, most of his crops go to feeding the hungry and the homeless.
Feeding Tampa Bay reports that 15.7 percent of Pinellas County’s population, or 144,350 people, is food insecure. Across the United States, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, an estimated 12.3 percent of homes were food insecure in 2016, meaning that at some point during the year they lacked access to food.
Wunderlich maintains a 50 to 30 to 20 ratio. That means 50 percent of the harvests (though he’d like to see that number as high as 70 percent) are donated to local charities, like St. Vincent de Paul and the Daystar Life Center, while 30 percent is sold and 20 percent is given to volunteers who work the farms. In 2017, that 50 percent amounted to roughly 1,000 pounds of fresh produce. In past years, the number was even higher, like in 2015 when it reached 4,000 pounds.
An avid runner, Wunderlich quite literally ran into the property that would be his first farm at Boyd Hill. He describes coming across a patch of sandy weeds and an old sprinkler system while on a jog through the preserve. It was a previous ranger’s garden, and Wunderlich was told he was welcome to revive it. Now, the third-generation St. Pete native and retired health educator maintains four locations: Boyd Hill, off 31st Street S; Edgemoor, near the corner of 62nd Avenue NE and First Street N; a garden on Oakdale Street in south St. Petersburg; and one in Woodlawn, at 12th Street and 26th Avenue N. Together, the gardens produced more than 2,000 pounds of produce in 2017.
We talk about all of this while seated on the tailgate of Wunderlich’s Ford F-150 pickup. We’re just getting into urban farming and its future in St. Pete when he’s summoned from across the plot. The water pressure is off, and volunteers need his help fixing it.
"Want to pick a carrot?" he asks me.
Robin Wiltshire breezes past carrying a basket of greens. She’s dressed in dirt-speckled jeans and gardening boots, and has streaks of cerulean and violet in her dark brown pixie cut. She has flitted about the garden all day turning compost, weighing vegetables, picking up discarded leaves and stalks. Now, she’s going to go help harvest.
I crouch in the dirt while the former Shorecrest Preparatory School teacher, 49, pulls back tall green stalks and shows me the purple heads poking up out of the ground. She tells me that carrots aren’t naturally orange; they were bred that way by the Dutch.
Jennica Hopkins, a volunteer I had recently seen waist-deep in a compost pile, says that there are three reasons why people get involved with Wunderfarms: for the social aspect of working with other volunteers, for the philanthropic aspect and for the purely "hard work, get dirty" aspect. She uses Wiltshire as an example of someone committed to philanthropy.
If Wiltshire went by a title, it would be assistant farm director, but she says people don’t really refer to her that way. She likes hard work and to get dirty like everyone else, which is why I’m kneeling next to her in the dirt, tugging carrots out of the ground.
I grip the stalk at the base and gently pull a cosmic purple, beet-looking bulb from the soil. I’m holding an heirloom carrot, Wiltshire says gleefully. She cuts one open to show me its ringed insides, which fade from purple to orange to yellow, and hands out chunks for volunteers to eat. I wander back to Wunderlich munching on my snack, which is earthy and gritty in all the best ways.
Community gardening has expanded in Tampa Bay over the years, he says, though with increasing urban development and an equally rising demand for fresh, local produce, the urban farming movement, which is still young in St. Pete, has a ways to go.
But there is a possibility for it to flourish here, says Bill Bilodeau, president of the St. Petersburg-based Sustainable Urban Agriculture Coalition, in a phone interview. For seven years, Bilodeau managed the community garden at Faith House, transitional housing once located at Third Avenue and 15th Street N. (The property is now home to St. Pete Eco Village.)
Aside from leading SUAC, Bilodeau teaches permaculture courses after spending nearly his entire adult life in professional gardening. His vision is to see more gardens in the city, he said, like there are in places like Seattle, Portland, Boston and Chicago.
"It’s an alternative to the existences we’re living where people don’t even know their neighbors," he says. "Gardens can bring people together."
Wunderlich, who is equally dedicated to the community aspect of gardening, says that people have to demand it.
"You cannot create this kind of community in concrete," he says. Moments later, Bilodeau shows up to the Edgemoor garden. He and Wunderlich have known each other for nearly two decades, though they haven’t seen one another in months.
I leave the two to catch up and go find Wiltshire, who’s kneeling over heads of romaine.
Contact Carlynn Crosby at [email protected]