They get up before dawn when the temperatures are hovering in the 30s in Hernando County, when the fields are flooded in Manatee County. Their hands are sticky with honey, dirty from pulling radishes, bloodied with the birth of a new baby goat.
They are the local farmers who bring their bounty to the white-tented tables that line the Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg during our prime produce season.
Shoppers come weekly to pick up goods like honey, but we probably don't think about the bee farmer who got stung on her hands, who poured hot beeswax into candle molds in her kitchen and lost a hive in the same week. When we buy a radish, perhaps we don't think about where it came from, the deep magenta vegetable pulled out of the ground, its color richly contrasted against the brown dirt. We might not realize the amount of effort it takes to sell what you've grown.
"It's hard work to come to the market," said Gail Eggeman, manager of the downtown St. Petersburg market, the largest outdoor one in Florida with a rotating crop of 170 vendors. She vets the local farmers to ensure quality and veracity of their products. "Farmers don't take a break until their fields are fallow. Some of them have full-time jobs and do farming on their side. You have to harvest, then they come to market and they have to go home and compost what didn't get sold."
We visited a handful of these local farmers throughout the past month to get a glimpse at how they tend their farms. Meet them on their home turf.
The Dancing Goat, Tampa
Pam Lunn is taking a rest from hauling feed and cleaning the goat stalls to bottle-feed Luzia, an hour-old baby goat on her lap that is wearing a sweater. At age "60-something," she works 70 hours a week with her small staff to make goat products like milk, cheese, yogurt and kefir. Four days a week, head milker and cheese chef Shawn Wright, 28, milks 35 goats a day every 12 hours. Foreman Jose Rodriguez does everything else on the farm. In addition to goats, Lunn keeps roosters, chickens, guineas, ducks, horses, dogs, rescue cats and an alpaca named Poquito. Market manager Gail Eggeman met Lunn at Sweetwater Organic Community Farm nine years ago and invited her to open a booth at the Saturday Morning Market. Eggeman noticed how Lunn's fingers were thickened with muscles and stained.
"You can see how hard she works," she said.
Rebecca's Bees, St. Petersburg
Tucked away on the west side St. Petersburg, former high school chemistry teacher Rebecca Conroy, 39, pulls a frame from one of her 14 hive boxes to inspect her honeybees and check on the health of the queen. Hundreds of bees swarm about the wax and wire foundation, spending their short lives making honey, building wax and making offspring.
The average life-span of a honeybee is six weeks, although the queens can live a few years. Other impressive facts: Honeybees visit 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey, and it takes 12 bees their entire lifetime to make just 1 teaspoon's worth. Conroy uses all of the bees' products to make honey, candles, lip balm, propolis products, soap and deodorant.
"I don't do anything I don't believe in 100 percent. My work is more fun than it is work. It's kind of like being retired," she said on a recent morning, barefoot in her kitchen with a bee product lab full of slow cookers and candle molds, glass measuring cups and double boilers. Her mother, Gail Conroy, 65, is also a big part of her business. She has 10 hives at her home in Redington Shores and works the booth with her daughter every Saturday.
Prevatt Farms, Wimauma
Brad Prevatt, 58, looks out over the rows of strawberries on his 8-acre farm. He takes a few steps and plucks a berry to eat. Most are white on this particular day, but they'll all be turning red again soon. It's been a tough season. Prevatt ran out of strawberries the first week of December because the heat didn't allow them to bloom. There was a gap from Jan. 1 to Feb. 14, but he's gearing up to return to the market for the second half of February with the sweet red jewels.
The sixth-generation Hillsborough County native loves being a farmer.
"My granddad owned all the land here in any direction," said Prevatt, who is proud of his Old Florida roots. There's not much Old Florida left, but he's holding on to what does remain.
"It ought to be a requirement for children to come to U-picks to see where their food comes from," he said.
Alongside his strawberry field sits a long row, tall with rainbow chard and collard greens and bursting with cabbages and sweet onions. He pulls a bunch of onions from the ground and holds them up by their 2-foot-long greens.
"This is not a job for me. I get up seven days a week , 365 days a year. I feel like if I couldn't do that I'd just die. I love it."
He takes a pocketknife out and cuts off some of his bounty, offering it to his visitor along with a promise of recipes to come.
Little Pond Farm, Bushnell
On a cold, sunny morning in January, a half-dozen fleece-wearing farmers pick giant bunches of carrots, greens and radishes. This is Little Pond Farm, which Cole Turner, 22, started three years ago on his family's 26 acres of farmland. The fertile fields amount to 4 acres. The farm, which follows organic standards but is not certified, has a Community Supported Agriculture model and sells its food to restaurants. They even have a sought-after live-in apprenticeship program. Turner's mom comes every Friday to wash the produce and pack it up for the Saturday morning trip to St. Petersburg.
"I really like being connected to the earth and the soil," said Turner, who started the garden after a stint with an organic farm in Georgia. "It feels like it's my life's purpose."
He loves seeing the hard work pay off.
"This year we harvested 3,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, which is exactly what we wanted to grow. It's always fulfilling to see the fruits of our labor ."
Worden Farm, Punta Gorda
It's high season at Worden Farm, where bright red and green horizontal rows of lettuce contrast with the muted earth tones of vertical sugarcane. On a recent winter morning, plein air painters planted themselves with their paintbrushes and easels to capture various scenes on the 85-acre certified organic family farm. Bonnie White of Arcadia looked up from her artwork and across the field of tomatoes from beneath her pink visor.
"There's a lot of gifts coming from this place," she said. "You can feel a spiritual presence."
But not every day is so peaceful. Gail Eggeman remembers the first day workers from Worden Farm came to the market. "The first time they came to market they had a tire that blew," she recalled. "They had to drive in on a rim. It was loud and shocking. It's very quiet at 6 in the morning and you could hear them coming down the road."
Johnston's Farms, Myakka City
Pilot Allen Johnston, 55, and his wife, Nan, 49, a high school math teacher, had dreamed about a farm for years. When it finally happened, it was on a whim.
"We had a hurricane day (in 2004) at Manatee High and we went to the feed store and bought chickens," said Nan.
After that, and watched movies like the Food Inc. and Super Size Me, went to workshops and read everything they could about sustainable farming and farmer Joel Salatin, who practices holistic management of animal husbandry.
"We decided we wanted to eat something different," she said.
They looked at aquaponic and hydroponic farms, "but we liked the animals so much." So the couple, who own a house in Bradenton, bought 14 acres of Myakka City farmland in 2011. Now they have over 100. They built chicken coops, brooders, fences and a pole barn. They learned to drive heavy equipment. Soon, they had pigs and cows and a pet donkey named Bandit, who is suspicious of people in hats but loves an occasional boxed cereal treat.
They have been selling their beef and pork products at the market for three years, relative newcomers on both the market and farm scenes. They buy cattle that other farmers have weaned, then raise them. Their herd of cows, which is grass-fed, hovers around 30 but can fluctuate. Normally they have 24 pigs at a time. They get them when they're about 50 pounds, and raise them to 250 pounds before they go to be processed.
"Our goal is to feed 250 families in maybe a 75-mile range. That's about as big as we're going to get."
Larry and Gladys Evans, Flemington
Larry and Gladys Evans have been known to leave their farm in Micanopy at 3 a.m. to avoid traffic, arrive in the market parking lot at 5 and sleep in their truck until they set up their array of vegetables. During our visit to their stand at the market, Gladys flashes a bright smile as her short braids peek out from beneath her straw hat. Larry gives instruction on how to cook black-eyed peas. There is cauliflower, collard greens and entire trunks of Brussels sprouts plants, the sprouts perched between the plant stems. One patron remarks that she didn't know they grew like that. The Evanses' farm has also suffered from winter flooding this year, and they were reluctant to let a photographer visit, as it wasn't in top form. But still, they harvest, they fill their trucks and they fill their table, week after week.