Advertisement
  1. Pinellas

How local farmers are finding space in crowded Pinellas County

Eric Law, owner of Greens ‘n’ Things Urban Farm, planted a garden at 2500 25th Ave. N in St. Petersburg in 2017 and helps provide local chefs with produce. “I know I’m not going to get rich doing this, but it’s an important thing,” he said. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jul. 10

Click here to read this story in Spanish

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.

KNOW YOUR COMMUNITY: For news and information on local happenings, visit the Times' Pinellas County news page.

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Authorities say school guardian Erick Russell, 37, pawned his sheriff's-issued firearm because he needed gas money. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    He also pawned magazines and body armor because he needed gas money, detectives said. He faces charges of false verification.
  2. Dr. Paul McRae was the first black chief of staff at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Dr. McRae died on September 13, 2019. He was photographed here in the Tampa Bay Times photo studio for the 2008 Dr. Carter G Woodson Museum's "Legends Honorees" gala. BOYZELL HOSEY  |  BOYZELL HOSEY  |  Times
    ‘His extraordinary example paved the way for so many others.’
  3. Neeld-Gordon Garden Center, open at this location since 1925, is closing on Sept. 28. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    The development of Pinellas County and the arrival of the big box stores helped hasten the store’s demise.
  4. Falo Kane, 32, of Clearwater, now faces four counts of sexual battery of a physically helpless person and a violation of probation charge, according to police. [CLEARWATER POLICE DEPARTMENT]  |  Clearwater Police Department
    Falo Kane now faces a total of seven counts of sexual battery of a physically helpless person.
  5. Tampa has a pilot program underway to test scooters. Clearwater could soon have one of its own. But if it's limited to downtown, who will use it? CHRIS URSO  |   Times
    The city’s plan is coming into focus, but there will be limitations.
  6. A car hangs from a crane after being removed for the water along the Howard Frankland Bridge Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. Florida Highway Patrol
    The driver emerged okay but faces charges of driving with a suspended license.
  7. Marquis Scott, 20, is a former Northeast High School football captain who his family says was trying to turn his life around. Then he was fatally shot while riding his bike, according to St. Petersburg police. BOYZELL HOSEY  |  Courtesy of Scott family
    Marquis Scott, 20, was shot while riding his bike. The Northeast High School football captain was turning his life around, his family said.
  8. Rendering of the new Shore Acres Recreation Center that will replace the current structure at 4230 Shore Acres Blvd. NE, St. Petersburg Wannemacher Jensen Architects
    The long-desired project is praised, but some neighbors worry about its proposed height and a new entrance and exit on busy 40th Avenue NE
  9. Less than a month after being fired, former St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love wants the agency to give him a job running its development nonprofit at the same $157,000 salary. That offer, part of ongoing negotiations over his severance, was rejected by the agency's board.
    Tony Love’s attorney tells the agency that fired him he wants full salary and benefits through 2020. The board rejects his offer.
  10. John Jonchuck returned to a Pinellas County courtroom last month to attend a hearing about whether he was entitled to a new trial. A judge on Tuesday ruled that he is not. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    Jonchuck was convicted of first-degree murder in April. He dropped his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, off a bridge in 2015.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement