“My friends tell me they bought Ruskin tomatoes off the back of a truck in August. I have to tell them: that’s not local. They just don’t know.” Cathy Hume tells me about the struggles she and her husband, Dave, had when first selling their local produce. “Eating local” has become more a new trend, with open-air markets cropping up all over the Bay area, and yet people still do not know the source of their food. Just because it’s labeled local, or appears in a small store or at a market, doesn’t mean it is, in fact, locally sourced. “People ask me, ‘how do I know?’ They just need to educate themselves,” Cathy argues. Urban Oasis seeks to provide at least some of that education.
Dave and Cathy Hume, owners of Urban Oasis
The husband and wife team started Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm four years ago, after leaving careers as a landscaper and a legal secretary. Dave’s landscaping expertise makes him able to “grow anything”, according to wife, Cathy, while her office training has clearly influenced the efficiency and effectiveness of the business.
“We just always wanted to work together,” Dave remembers. He’s owned the lot on a busy Tampa street for 18 years, living in a small house on the property and later leasing the property to a hot tub vender, who allowed the land to become overgrown. After much debate, Dave and Cathy decided to make something of it.
Dave recounts a moment of serendipity when Cathy saw an advertisement for a hydroponic growing system. They were in the midst of deciding how to best use the land. “We thought about it and prayed about it and decided that’s what we needed to do.”
The hydroponic system is a vertical growing system, where tiered pots make efficient use of water and space. Water is sprayed from above and gravity takes care of the rest as water drips through holes in the bottom of each layer. The result is the maximum use of a natural resource. The efficient setup also applies to the fertilizer and soil. Produce can be grown in small containers since the soil is infused with a high level of liquid fertilizer.
An empty hydroponic tower
The top of the tower is watered. Gravity brings it to the lower layers
Each plant sits in a bed of richly fertilized soil
Hydroponic farming is a great option for small spaces or busy towns. Urban Oasis occupies just ¾ acre, yet grows enough food to maintain a membership base and sell produce at a farm stand on site. While the system is already both environmentally and economically sustainable, the Humes go one step further, adopting organic practices to grow chemical-free, all natural produce.
A tower of parsley
Their work has been well received. Many members picked up their shares during my visit. Just as well, there are a number of new visitors daily. Dave and Cathy receive newcomers openly, answering any and all questions about local food, hydroponic growing systems, their growing practices, and even their personal story. The result is a warm ‘mom and pop’ setting where members are family, fresh customers are new friends, and everyone becomes a “houseguest”, according to new staff member John Carminati. John is the resident chef at Urban Oasis.
Questions about food preparation are directed to John. A professional chef by training, John was drawn to farming because of his love of food. “I take pride in being a chef on the farm because I take the time to grow and manage this beautiful food,” he tells me as he trims some red leaf lettuce.
Nastrutium: edible with a kick!
Moving to the nasturtium tower, full of stunning bright orange flowers, he picks one and tells me to eat it. I delicately pull a petal off. “No, the whole thing,” John tells me, “but be careful, it’s spicy.” He recommends it as a beautiful topper for a salad. And he wasn’t lying about the spice!
This is the educational aspect of Urban Oasis. They promote trying new things, especially products that are locally sustainable. Dave and Cathy are experts about all things growing, and are willing to share that knowledge, selling the type of equipment they use and encouraging people to grow at home. The farm is open every Friday and Saturday, and farm tours are offered throughout the season. Gardening workshops are offered routinely, and John offers free recipes and cooking advice in person and on his blog: featuring Urban Oasis goods.
At the end of the day, the Humes just want to provide the best possible and most
Dave Hume, master farmer.
honest products to their customers. They support the local economy, selling local eggs and raw milk in their market, along with local citrus and other produce that won’t grow in the hydroponic system. And these things really are local. “I’m not willing to lie. Some people will tell you what you want to hear,” Cathy says of other markets that may make the claim.
As for their own produce, transparency and education are key. “I have every confidence that [our produce] is as healthy as it could possibly be,” Cathy says “Bring in a brix meter to compare us to any other produce and I bet ours would be better.”
The confidence in their product and in their business is a result of their passion for growing the best they possibly can in a new and innovative way. And they’ll teach you how to do it, too. Just ask!
Think before you eat,
Winter 2012 Tampa Food Warrior