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Organic farm a living, and a way of life, at My Mother's Garden

WIMAUMA — The pigs snuffle spent grain from the Sarasota Brewing Company and whatever greenhouse veggies are past their peak. The laying hens are moved daily in "chicken tractors," the grass beneath them seeming to instantly green up from a nitrogen-rich poop infusion, then the cows are shifted to the new-grass pastures to graze.

My Mother's Garden in Wimauma is resoundingly low-tech, and that's how Susan Bishop and her family like it.

Incorporated and certified organic in 1992, the 90-acre parcel of land houses Bishop and her husband, Paul, in a 624-square-foot Cracker bungalow. Their sons, Calvin, 23, and Jesse, 25, moved into adjacent microbungalows in their teen years. Susan's mother and sister live in a house on one side of the property, her brother and his family on the other side. Then add in the dogs, the cats, the family of foxes precariously near the chicken tractors, the gopher tortoises, the coral snake that may or may not be in the barn and the occasional bobcat, and it should start to feel busy. But it doesn't.

Moss-draped live oaks and palmettos, an orchard of gnarled sour oranges and some clearly doomed attempts at front-yard sod spread out in all directions from the bungalow built in 1886, its old-wood cypress walls and hearts of pine floors probably sourced from neighboring land that is now protected under Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. Despite all that wide open green space, My Mother's Garden is part of a growing and tight-knit community of small Florida farms that sell at farmers' markets, through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and directly to the public.

For nearly 20 years, Susan Bishop and family have carted herbs and vegetables to the Sarasota Farmers' Market, adding booths at newer markets like the organic Twilight Market on Tuesdays in Ybor City. In addition, an online farmers' market allows customers to put together virtual shopping carts and pick up their goodies weekly at one of several sites in Hillsborough and Manatee counties. They sell Berkshire pork, grass-fed beef and eggs directly to the public as well and offer potted herbs and Florida native plants at area garden shows.

In short: My Mother's Garden is a generalist, with a lot of moving parts that work synergistically using the holistic methods of animal husbandry and farming popularized by farmer/lecturer Joel Salatin.

Farming in the new millennium

Truth is, Susan didn't grow up farming.

"My father, Richard Alexander, was a citrus engineer. He bought this property back in the late 1970s. He loved this piece of land; it was a little bit of everything, a microcosm of Florida, with pastures down to the Manatee River, swamp, upland oak and pine."

Bishop and family moved onto the land in 1988, Susan eventually giving up a job as a welder to farm full time. In the new millennium, she and her sister, Kathy Oliver, started with cattle, a mixed herd that hovers somewhere around 20 head. They bought a Murray Grey bull — a breed that tends to marble better on a diet of grass — for breeding. The biggest issue with selling grass-fed beef, says Bishop, is teaching people how to cook it.

"You really shouldn't cook grass-fed beef beyond medium rare. There's a lot of information out there now, so a lot of people are aware of the health benefits."

And after the cows, in their own acre-and-a-half pasture, came the Berkshire hogs, another heritage breed that has more marbling than average supermarket pork. Poppy, Pepper and Aunt Ginger (an old gal who is a different, Tamworth breed — don't ask Susan about trying to buy Tamworth semen online) are permanent residents, with Poppy and Pepper's twice-annual litters of piglets more temporary residents. At nine months, after a short life of frolicking, wallowing and foraging for Florida acorns, the young pigs get sent off to a USDA processing plant near Ocala, the retail cuts returned to Bishop and family ready to sell.

Slim margins

The chicken tractors, also called arks, are exactly that. Made of mesh and PVC piping, they are floorless framed structures light enough to drag around a pasture. The chickens follow along, lining up along the leading edge of the tractor, eager to get the first crack at new grass.

There's not a lot of money in eggs, Susan says. My Mother's Garden charges $4.25 for a dozen. In the best of times, each hen can produce one egg every 26 hours. That means each chicken has the potential to bring in around 35 cents a day. Females start laying at five months and slow down around two years, the males obviously not good for much in this equation.

In fact, the math of just about everything at the farm is a study in tight margins. Commercial pig feed runs $70 a week. Still, litters can number between eight and 12 piglets, so the farm yields plenty of pork (non-breeding Aunt Ginger is a bit of a freeloader, according to Paul Bishop). Most of the year the cows eat for free, and with no antibiotics or "corn finishing" to ratchet up the cost. But each breeding cow produces only one calf each year, and on a grass diet it takes two years to bring a cow to size.

Then add in the organic produce, from different colored eggplants to slender French green beans, and it just takes a pest or a terrible storm season like the one in 2004 (they lost a couple of greenhouses that year) for profits to take a hit.

So why do it?

Spend an afternoon walking around the 90 acres, pitbull-mix Max hassling the cows when he thinks Susan's not looking, and it comes clear that it's about the land. Most of the three generations who share the property have day jobs off the farm (Paul is a history teacher at Hillsborough Community College). But at the end of the day they come back to this piece of history, to do things the way Floridians have done for generations.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

My Mother's Garden

For more information about My Mother's Garden, visit mymothersgarden.com. The farm's produce, eggs and meats are available at the downtown Sarasota Farmers Market from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and the Twilight Market in Ybor City from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday at the Roosevelt 2.0, 1812 N 15th St.

About this column

In the Tampa Bay area and surrounding counties, there is an increasing number of small farms growing crops and raising animals. Many of them sell at farmers' markets and through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture, a way of investing up front in local producers and then receiving a share of the farmer's bounty ). Some even sell to restaurants as part of the farm-to-fork movement. Down on the Farm, which will run occasionally in Taste, will tell the stories of local farmers through words and photographs.

Organic farm a living, and a way of life, at My Mother's Garden 03/19/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 12:52pm]
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