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Poor soil, no pay, but veggies anyway

Backyard farmers follow one rule of thumb: Nobody gets rich in this business. But in spite of battles with poor soil, lots of hard work and little hope of making more than pennies, such farmers supply homegrown produce to people who want their vegetables to be as fresh as possible, according to farming experts.

June is high season for vegetables, and backyard growers offer juicy red tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, sweet corn, okra and other produce.

Sydney Park Brown, an urban horticulturist for the Florida Cooperative Extension Service, said gardening is popular locally, but few people try to turn a profit.

"There is no way to determine how many people in the county sell their produce unless they go through commercial marketing outlets," Brown said. "Backyard gardening requires a lot of work in Hillsborough County because the soil is so poor."

Gardener Paul LaPlaca said he has relied on good harvests and honest customers to turn his yard into a mini-business.

LaPlaca, who picks the green beans, blackberries, squash and cucumbers in his 1{-acre plot, sets up a homemade sign in front of his house on Lithia-Pinecrest Road to attract customers.

But that's the extent of his effort. An unattended mason jar is the only cashier.

"In the years I have been doing this, only one person has been dishonest with me," said LaPlaca, a retired feed store merchant from Buffalo, N.Y., who has been farming in the Brandon area for more than 10 years. "I guess most people who enjoy fresh food are basically honest."

Sharon King doesn't wait for customers to come to her; she goes to them. Every Thursday, she makes her rounds in Brandon shopping centers, hawking tomatoes, corn, peppers, squash and other produce from her quarter-acre backyard farm off Kings Avenue, virtually in the heart of Brandon.

She started gardening in 1988 as a hobby to share with her husband, Brian.

"We used to grow what we needed and give away the rest," said King. "Then the water bills got higher, as well as pesticides and other costs, so I started a route. I don't make any profit, but my husband and I eat free."

Jack Lumsden takes some of the trouble out of backyard farming by letting customers pick most of their own produce on the 8-acre back yard on Valrico Road he has been cultivating since 1948.

The only vegetable the 80-year-old grower harvests himself is okra, and he picks them because when the delicate tops are broken off, the plant won't produce anymore.

Lumsden limits his crop to corn, okra, a few butterbeans and a variety of peas, including conk, silver crowder, black-eyed, pink eyes and zipper. In the fall, Lumsden grows turnips, collards and some sweet potatoes. He said his largest turnip weighed 8 pounds and was 27 inches around. His prize sweet potato was 5 pounds.

He hasn't advertised or even put up a sign in front of his garden for more than 15 years and sells out each season.

"People just drive by and see it grow and stop to pick," Lumsden said. "We always grow enough to sell some, put up some (freeze and can), and give some to our family."

The setup also has one other side benefit.

"If I didn't farm a crop, my wife and I wouldn't have nearly as many people stop by to visit," he said.