A chance to meet Florida farmers and food producers, maybe sample their products? Road trip, I call shotgun.
At the end of July, I drove up to the University of Florida for the second annual Florida Organic Growers Organic Food and Farming Summit, with a full day of workshops and classes for farmers, backyard gardeners, retailers and organics advocates. There were sessions on soil health and food justice, a trade show of products and tools, and an opportunity for a community to mingle and exchange ideas.
But the day before, Florida Organic Growers put together a drive-it-yourself tour of farms and food producers in North Central Florida. Here are some of the places I saw, and what I learned along the way.
9 to 10:30 a.m.; 12438 W State Road 238, Lake Butler
Lola Farms, a 16.5-acre outfit in Lake Butler, was muddy. Boot-suckingly muddy. But pretty. Kimberly and Shane Ruessler got their first pigs in 2013, settling on the Gloucestershire old spot breed to produce pasture-raised pork. It's the center of their business, although Oberhasli dairy goats, a flock of laying hens, one mini horse and several dogs have been added to the mix.
As we tromped through the different paddock areas, we learned about the farm's history: It was named for Kimberly's grandmother, Lola Dekle, who was an avid vegetable and flower gardener into her 80s. Before they started, they spent six months researching pigs, settling on a breed developed in England in the 1800s that is often called a "cottage pig" or "orchard pig." Why these pigs? Good temperament, they don't root too much and turn the farm into a moonscape, and the meat is delicious.
Raised on pasture surrounded by electric fencing with a solar charger, about 100 Gloucestershire old spots mingled with a handful of red wattles (large, fleshy red pigs with a distinctive chin tassel) and some goofy-looking squinch-faced little pigs of the Meishan breed.
The goats came a year after the pigs, the Ruesslers looking for a breed whose milk was more cowlike and less "goaty." They milk the Oberhasli every other day, and thus far have not processed any of them for meat. On this day? The Oberhasli were mostly perched up high in their field (goats don't like to get their feet wet) giving the hairy eyeball to the tour group of about 30.
Before we all hopped back in our cars, we sampled the Ruesslers GMO-free pork out of a slow cooker. Delicious. You can get in on it with Lola Farms' meat CSA — they deliver to Gainesville every third week.
For more information, go to lolafarms.com.
High Springs Orchard & Bakery
11:15 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.; 10804 NW State Road 45, High Springs
Jenny and Chuck Franklin started the farm in 1996, 26 acres of hay field that began with a few persimmon trees. After a decade, it has turned into hundreds of persimmon, chestnut and Asian pear trees, as well as assorted varieties of muscadine grapes and figs (which replaced blueberries some years ago), all of it certified organic.
The Asian pears were ripe while we were there, each of us reaching up and snapping one off. Crisp, sweet, tart — a revelation. The chestnuts, a fall crop (so why is it always "chestnuts roasting on the open fire" in the middle of winter?), must be professionally harvested because the fruit is contained in spiny burs that really hurt if they prick you (yes, of course we all had to try it).
The Franklins used to supply chestnuts to Whole Foods and sell the rest of their wares at the Wednesday farmers' market in Gainesville, but now contract with Frog Song Organics in Hawthorne to sell their stuff. Jenny Franklin's advice to the would-be farmers in the tour group: Limit the number of things you aim to grow, or you'll work yourself to death harvesting everything over the course of a 12-month growing cycle. Farmers need a little down time.
For more information, go to highspringsorchard.com.
Sweetwater Coffee Co.
2 to 2:45 p.m.; 1331 S Main St., Gainesville
Started in 2009, this is Gainesville's only fair trade, certified-organic coffee roaster that sources entirely from small-scale coffee farms. It's not a farm itself because, well, coffee doesn't grow in Central Florida. But the tour group got a quick spin through the intricacies of fair trade principles, sourcing and what a cooperative business model is as they toured the roasting facility.
Here's the rub: For producers to sell coffee beans direct to end users, they must be able to fill a 40,000-pound shipping container. So growers form co-operatives and sell their product together with others. But what about on the purchasing side? If you're a small roaster, you can hardly buy 40,000 pounds on your own. Sweetwater has banded with 23 other roaster members to purchase collaboratively.
They have a commitment to organics, not necessarily because the end coffee is safer for consumers or better-tasting. It's to ensure the farmers are working and living in an environment with organic soil and naturally controlled pests, so they can use the land for subsistence farming as well and so they aren't living in a miasma of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
The co-op brings its coffee into New Jersey, and Sweetwater ships eight pallets down every month to roast. Sweetwater will roast 145,000 pounds of coffee in 2018, 40 pounds at a time in a drum roaster, mostly sold as whole beans. Tripp Pomeroy and his team blend coffees from Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and elsewhere, cupping each week (that means brewing some and tasting it critically) to discuss and tinker with the blends.
To order the coffee online, visit sweetwaterorganiccoffee.com.
Cypress & Grove Brewing Co.
3 to 4 p.m.; 1001 NW Fourth St., Gainesville
After the cold brew coffee comes a different kind of cold brew. Cypress & Grove, a year-old brewery, is housed in the Gainesville building that was once the home of the Gainesville Ice House (producing ice that was used to cool the Atlantic and Seaboard Railroads cars). It draws its water from a 400-foot artesian well that dates to 1906 and pulls directly from the Floridan aquifer.
Facilities manager Nathan DiPietro led the tour group through the brewing process: The water is pumped out and disinfected with an ozonator. Different types of grains are crushed to break up the kernels and extract the fermentable sugars. Seven hundred tons of this product, called grist, are transferred into a mash tun, where it is mixed with heated water in a process called mash conversion, to break the malt's starch down into sugars. Then it's all pumped into a lauter tun, where the liquid (wort) is separated from the grain husks. They boil the wort, putting the hops in at the beginning of the boil. After that it's cooling, fermentation, maturation, filtration and carbonation.
Cypress & Grove is making traditional American-style, yeast-neutral beers. We sipped our way through blonde and pale ales, an IPA, a porter and a stout. And in the name of giving back to Florida farms, the brewery donates its spent grains to a herd of grass-fed Hereford, Angus, Charolais, brahman and Mashona cattle at Aquilla Farm in Waldo.
For more information, go to cypressandgrove.com.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.