Thursday, February 26, 2009

The 'slow food' revolution

The 'slow food' revolution

Local farms attract more local consumers

Publication Date: 02/25/09

HASTINGS -- Four children help carry dozens of boxes stuffed with fresh-picked vegetables to waiting drivers at Mystic Bean Coffee on State Road 207.

Cayla Smith, 8, one of the children, said the produce comes from her family's farm.

"We do all the picking," she said Tuesday evening.

The boxed veggies include cabbage, kale, collard greens, lettuce, mustard greens, radishes, celery and spinach.

Tuesday night's boxes included some cut camelias for color.

Cayla's sister, Cady, 11, said her father is the boss of the whole operation.

"Dad does some of the picking, too," she said. "Actually, he does most of the picking."

Brothers Jared, 13, and Jeremy, 10, do much of the heavy lifting, always exceptionally polite.

The Smiths, Jeb and Wendy, are part of a growing movement in St. Johns County where farmers grow, pick and transport a fixed amount of produce -- on this trip it's 50 boxes -- to a single point weekly, which is in turn given to paid subscribers.

The growers receive needed cash, and the subscribers receive a variety of fresh vegetables in abundance.

One customer lugging her produce to the car, Becky Nolan Greenberg, said, "It's a wonderful idea."

Back at the farm, the Smiths load the boxes onto a trailer and drive it to Mystic Bean.

This winter, Jeb said, "We got nipped (by the cold) pretty good, especially the spinach and cabbage."

But there were still enough vegetables untouched to fulfil their obligation to the customers.

His family had grown potatoes in Hastings for 84 years but now has diversified.

"People should be aware of who does the work and who gets the money. It's not the grower," he said.

Richard Villadoniga, a seventh-grade teacher at Fruit Cove Middle School, started a chapter of the Slow Food organization in St. Johns County to encourage people here to support local agriculture.

That's been a great success. Now, there are at least four Community-Based Agriculture groups in operation -- two in Hastings, one in Switzerland and one in St. Augustine run by Douglas Family Farms, which grows vegetables using hydroponic techniques.

Villadoniga said, "When I ask my class, 'Where does food come from?' they say, 'From Publix.' The idea of a farm is foreign to them."

He said people should try to avoid foods grown using massive amounts of fertilizer or pesticides.

"Small family farms are disappearing and being bought by conglomerates," he said. "We want to educate people so they will make a direct connection to their local farmer. Most farmers love what they do. It's not just a job."

He said the Community-Based groups "have a family feel" that is part social. He said people know their dentist and lawyer; why not their farmer?

Most subscriptions average about $25 a week.

"You can get a peach or tomato any time at a supermarket, but they will probably taste awful because they aren't in season," he said. "When you think of open space and quality of life, farms play a big role in that."

Getting a subscription

Wendy Smith had 50 subscribers in 2008 but wants to expand that to 75 for eight weeks of the spring season.

Last year, there was a waiting list, but she said there will be openings in March.

For an application, call her at 692-3542.

In 2010, she said, she'll expand the season to 20 weeks a year.

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