Where to find urban farming in the Tampa Bay region? Here are 3 places to go

In the hunt for fresh, locally grown produce to add nutrition to your table?

You can find signs of farm life throughout the Tampa Bay region as people turn small patches of vacant suburban land into places where life blossoms. While some of these farmers have been involved with turning soil all of their lives, others are reinventing themselves and their careers by trading in briefcases and business suits for tilling tools and denim overalls. 

Conversations with three such urban farmers in Hillsborough County reveal a growing interest in the booming organics industry. Here is how these urban farms got their start, what their owners are doing to keep their operations flourishing, and how they bring organic food and other farm-grown products to your home. 

The Dancing Goat

Not far from Westchase mansions and just a stone’s throw from the famous Tampa Bay Downs horse racing track in Oldsmar is a three-acre farm with more than 1,000 residents, including hundreds of quail, some 30 goats and even an alpaca. Their momma is a woman in her early 60s who escaped corporate life years ago and now finds her refuge in caring for the hundreds of animals in her agricultural sanctuary. 

“I always thought I was happy in corporate America, but this [farm] has proved how misguided I was,” says Pamela Martin Lunn, who bought the property with her husband more than 10 years ago and officially founded The Dancing Goat in August 2007. While none of the goats on the farm necessarily dance – at least none are known to break out the boogie shoes and do the Hustle -- they do provide plenty of milk. 

“When I started, my knowledge of raw milk was nothing,” says Lunn. “We drank the milk because I refused to buy store milk when we were feeding the goats and milking daily.” 

Soon, she began selling the goat milk, intended for pet consumption, locally at Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg and Sweetwater Organic Farm in Town ‘n’ Country on Sunday afternoons. She also hosts two annual Open Farm Days, during which she sells milk and many of the other products she offers at local markets, including artisan soap made from goat milk and organic, free-range eggs. 

Lunn is a busy person -- she spends nearly every waking hour tending to the farm or handling market duties. But she isn’t too busy to help foster a love for farming in the next generation. She mentors youth in Future Farmers of America (FFA) and other local organizations. 

“These FFA kids are our future,” she says. Meanwhile, Lunn also enlists many school-age children as volunteers and interns on her property, including two who are going on to become veterinarians. 

Lunn is also expanding her organic gardening operations, but the produce will be for the birds -- as well as the goats and other residents of the farm. “Our gardening efforts are concentrated in providing for our animals,” Lunn explains. “To be at least 25 percent self sufficient is our ultimate goal. We have a large banana grove which will provide the fruit and greenery from the leaves, concentrating this summer on morning and red hibiscus as well as various tropical plants that are known for their use as livestock feed.” 

Lunn believes in the years ahead, more people will create farms like hers. “Urban farming is the future of America,” she asserts. “Look at the European countries. While visiting Italy for the World Conference of Slow Food in Terra Madre, I noticed that if there was a 3-foot by 3-foot area adjacent to a house, it would be teeming with some type of edible plants -- from tomatoes to kale, no space was wasted,” she relates. “Many U.S. cities have fostered the idea of rooftop gardening, aviaries and small livestock production, as our own. Cows are not suitable for urban agriculture endeavors, but goats are definitely serving urban needs from dairy products to lot clearings.” 

Does that mean giant commercial agricultural operations will proverbially “buy the farm” in the years ahead? 

Not according to Lunn. “While factory farms will always feed the masses, those who want good, clean food will seek out their local farms.” She adds, “local food isn’t necessarily less expensive than factory farming due to the increased cost of small-scale agriculture, but isn’t it logical if you’re paying the same or a slightly increased price, to enjoy a more nutrient-dense product that hasn’t created the massive carbon footprint of food trucked from thousands of miles away?” 

Florida Urban Organics 

Nutrient-dense food is what Matthew Harper is all about. The 29-year-old Marine Corps veteran stands before an open-air structure on his suburban Riverview farm where he grows thousands of organic strawberries. “Florida Urban Organics exists to produce nutrient-rich food,” Harper declares.

Harper says his food isn’t only packed with nutrients, it’s also brimming with abundant flavor. 

“You can judge the taste with a brixometer,” he says, referring to a brix meter, also called a refractometer. The device measures the amount of sugar in water and is useful in determining how sweet or tasteful food is. “We also have a God-given brixometer,” he comments. “It’s called a tongue.” 

Harper says one can taste the difference between the produce he grows versus the fruits and vegetables grown on “more conventional” farms where synthetic horticultural agents may be in use. According to Harper, the strawberries grown at his farm rank near the maximum measurement threshold on a refractometer. 

His strawberries are grown in upcycled hydroponics containers mounted several high on pylons closely spaced in a plot measuring 28 feet wide by 160 feet long. Though the area is less than 4,500 square feet in size, Harper says the number of strawberries that his efficient growing area yields is equivalent to the output of strawberries conventionally grown on a full acre – an area nearly 10 times the size. 

What catches the eye isn’t just the number strawberries Harper is growing in a small area, but it’s also the vibrant color of his produce. He owes the quality of his product in part to the organic fertilizer he uses -- chicken manure. 

“Organic matter is the second-most renewable source behind water,” he says. “We grow life with life.” 

Ask Harper what he thinks the biggest problem is in farming today, and he will emphatically reply with one word: chemicals. 

“We can grow the most nutrient-rich food in the state for 75 percent less cost than farms use on chemicals,” he says, pointing to the relatively inexpensive compost, mulch and other simple implements he uses to grow his food. In addition to strawberries, his crops currently include blueberries, tomatoes, herbs and even hops. Harper says with a chuckle, “hops are the second-most profitable crop behind cannabis,” the latter of which he is not engaged in growing. “Healthy soil is the foundation of everything we produce here.”

But what inspired Harper to begin growing all of this food? “I didn’t know anything about farming a few years ago,” he says. In 2011, Harper says there was a salmonella-related recall with baby food that compelled him and his wife to feed their young children the most nutrient-rich food they could. Matthew Harper obtained a permaculture degree and began researching how to grow his own food organically. For him, running a farm where new and, in some cases, virtually untested organic practices are employed is akin to a science experiment. 

“It’s a research and development lab,” he says of his farm. “We’re learning faster and healthier ways to produce organic fruit and vegetables.” 

He’s also testing the popularity of his product in the marketplace, which has so far proven to be a successful venture. In January 2016, the Harpers opened the farm at 11010 Riverview Drive and in the span of just a few short months have already seen thousands of visitors. 

“Currently, we’re open when the fruit is ripe, but we hope to someday be open seven days a week,” he says. “People are desperate for this stuff.” 

While most people stop by to buy strawberries, tomatoes, or other produce, some inquire about how they can also take up farming themselves. “We’ve created 35 farmers in the last month,” he explains. “Many people are leaving corporate America to become farmers.” 

Seeds of Love Nursery

Christine Grovenstein wasn’t an urban farmer just a few years ago. Not because she wasn’t already involved in horticulture, but only because her 10-acre spread in Lithia was still in rural surroundings. Today, more than 20 years after she bought her property, Grovenstein’s farm stands in the shadows of suburban housing developments and less than two miles from the popular Fishhawk Ranch neighborhood. 

“The property was uncleared virgin forest when I bought it in 1994,” she says. “The nearest grocery store was seven miles away on the corner of Bloomingdale Avenue and Lithia Pinecrest Road.” When she moved in, all of her neighbors had properties of at least five acres in size. “Today on one side of the street, the land is zoned for one house per acre, yet on my side the five-acre rule remains except for a few recent exceptions to zoning requests. The orange groves, cows and horse ranches are few.” 

Still, she carries on with her farming operations even as suburbia closes in. 

“In 1995, I started a nursery named Floridana with the goal of growing native plants. During this time, I hosted groups for fire and drumming circles, moon ceremonies and teachings of the medicine wheel,” the latter referring to a Native American metaphor for spiritual teachings and concepts. “I planted my first blueberries in 1995, but it was five years later that I started to sell them. In 2000, I changed my business name to Seeds of Love Nursery and Ceremonial Garden,” she explains. “It was always my plan to have events on the land that promoted spiritual connection to nature and spiritual gardening.” 

While four acres on Grovenstein’s property are still dedicated to the ceremonial gardens, the rest of the 10-acre tract is used for berry harvesting. In addition to blueberries, she also raises blackberries, citrus, plums, pears, grapes, peaches, nectarines, papayas, pomegranates, star fruit and mangoes. 

“A new additional 17 raised beds are for growing naturally grown vegetables,” she remarks. “I say ‘naturally grown’ because my organic certification with Quality Certification Services does not allow me to call a product organic on the farm unless they have certified it,” she explains. “All that is grown here uses organic practices.” 

For Grovenstein, her farming operations are a work in progress. She is continually growing new plants, and is also working on expanding her commercial operations to the public. “The plan is being made to have farm events such as ‘A Day in the Woods’ for contemplation and connection, as well as yoga, massage and meditation in the woods.” Meanwhile, pick-your-fruit opportunities began in early May. Otherwise, all sales are arranged by phone with established pick-up times. 

Growing plants is a lifelong interest for Grovenstein, who enjoyed reading Organic Farming and Gardening monthly magazine by Jerome Irving Rodale in the 1970s. In college, Grovenstein took an array of interdisciplinary science courses and later became a high school teacher. She would practice horticultural techniques in a U.S. Department of Agriculture [http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome] initiative that invited a dozen teachers from around the United States to learn about grafting, tissue culture and biodiversity. 

“I retired from teaching high school in 2011 and have devoted myself almost full time to [the farm and garden] since,” she says. “Yet, the more significant part in the story, my story, is the growing of me by the garden. The garden grows me,” she remarks. “As I have worked in a passionate and energized way, I found it gives back toward my well being, both in physical health, spiritual self-realization, and strong self walk as a woman. The feeling in my legs felt as if I was growing roots into the ground as I walked it.” 

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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.