Orange trees and hurricanes were all that I expected when I moved to Florida over a year ago. Since then I’ve learned of the strange geographic anomaly that is Tampa Bay, which is actually protected from most hurricanes. The citrus trees, however, are very real, though having one in your own backyard is a unrealized fantasy for most Tampa residents. Luckily there are alternatives.
Fort Lonesome Farm is one of those alternatives. But they don’t stop at citrus.
You-pick oranges bring in the crowds, but the you-pick hydroponic vegetables keep them coming back. Rick McHan, owner and farmer at Fort Lonesome, turned his front yard into a hydroponic farm after neighbors began asking to buy produce from his small home garden, then began requesting specific items for him to grow.
Four years later have passed and Rick now has an impressive set up of PVC pipes and irrigation piping, but he is still growing to order. “If you want it, he’ll find a way to grow it,” a farm member says emphatically, while I am waiting to speak to Rick. The man proceeds to give me a mini tour, showing the newly sprouted italian green beans (grown by request of his next door neighbor) and the overwhelming chocolate mint, which grows so quickly it can’t be contained, popping up like a weed in any pot nearby.
The member knew a lot more than the average consumer, which highlights the close relationship Rick has with his customers. At Fort Lonesome, you become the farmer. Members get first dibs and a discount, but all customers harvest their own produce.
The transparency begins with his hydroponic system, which he is happy to teach you. The system is entirely open, with pipes, pumps, and irrigation hoses creating an easily navigable farm plot. Easily
navigable for Rick, that is. He’s spent his professional life working in the sprinkler business, where he still holds a full-time job. He’s transferred some of that knowledge into to a brilliant hydroponic system. Though everything is exposed, the knowledge of the system’s maintenance is hidden, as with many farming practices.
During my visit, Rick reflected on the difficulty of starting to farm. “Everyone acted like it was a big secret.” Inconclusive farming practices found on Internet sources, databases, and forums led him to rely on people in stores, who would speak in circles about soil chemistry and plant types. He finally went back to his roots, developing the water system he uses now. He’s also stopped using pesticides because their ineffectiveness nearly led him to quit entirely. ”It seemed the more I sprayed, the more bugs there were, and the more I needed to spray. One day I just threw my hands in the air and said ‘forget it’. I went out a few weeks later to clean up the dead plants, but everything looked beautiful!”
Rick wants to end the sacredness of farming knowledge. “I learn as a I go and if anyone wants to know, I tell ‘em.” Children are usually his most enthusiastic students. Fields trips and birthday parties help Rick create and maintain connections to the community, creating an opportunity for kids to learn farming basics. He provides cuttings and growing pods to the kids, and a water system made from recycled water bottles that mimics his hydroponic system.
The engaged farming experience continues with harvesting. At Fort Lonesome, you pick everything you take home, from the oranges, to mint, to the “Lonesome Luscious” sweet onions. This level of hands-on interaction with your food makes members as passionate as Rick, evidenced in my first encounter with the passionate member!
That passion is contagious. As I pick oranges, romaine lettuce, and a hydroponic onion, I decide that I’ll come back soon for the Italian green beans. Rick warns me that I have to be sure to arrive early. “My members are like vultures.” The orange trees are nearly picked clean, but I’m able to bring home a nice harvest to add to the freshly foraged berries already waiting for me in my car.
I leave Fort Lonesome with a new understanding of how extreme food transparency can be, and how that can create passionate growing and passionate consumers.Think before you eat, Elizabeth Murray Winter 2012 Tampa Food Warrior