It is Thanksgiving, the long-held American tradition of giving thanks for the bounty that we in this nation have received. One day each year we gather together as a nation around kitchen and dining room tables, on couches and on folding chairs with TV trays; we gather together, united in gratitude for the feast of good fortune with turkeys or hams and a cornucopia of vegetables and sweet desserts.
In the past, little thought was given as to where all of that food came from. In the not too distant past, much of it probably came from farms within driving distance of home, although perhaps the turkey, corn, and other items came from points north, such as the Carolinas or Illinois. Like the fabled first Thanksgiving, we celebrate the bounty this nation produces through agriculture. America was and still is a world agricultural powerhouse.
But things are different today. Where our food comes from is much more complex and there are fewer things known in terms of how foodstuffs are grown and harvested. America is still the world’s breadbasket, but increasingly we import food as well. Why? It’s cheaper or, perhaps, it’s more profitable. Additionally, this nation’s annual agricultural bounty has as much to do with science as it does farming. GMOs, genetically modified organisms, mean genetic engineering is playing an ever-larger role in increasing not only the yields of modern agriculture, but also in insulating it against pests and a changing climate. Yet to the public, little is known about GMOs and the impact of engineering over nature on the food we eat.
As recently as the mid-1990s there were two tack stores in Ruskin and it wasn’t uncommon to see people riding horses along relatively quiet streets in Riverview. Back then, agriculture was still the state’s biggest industry, competing strongly with tourism. In years prior to that, Ruskin was known as the salad bowl of the nation, with farms producing famous tomatoes and other vegetables. Even when living in the city, it was easy enough to find local produce in most grocery stores or at numerous roadside stands.
Things have changed since then. One former tack store became the office of a now-bankrupt housing development. It is now vacant and owned by a bank. Hundreds of acres of farmland have given way to homes and roads. Agriculture, while still a significant part of Florida’s economy, is no longer king.
But more and more, people, including those living in urban areas, are becoming concerned about the food they eat. Despite that the Tampa Bay area is on the doorstep of a Gulf full of shrimp, the relatively inexpensive packaged shrimp in the supermarket freezer is much more likely to be a product of Vietnam than of Key West or Ft. Myers, and the cheap tomatoes may well be from Mexico rather than Ruskin. Oranges, Florida’s biggest agricultural product, are more likely to be found in juice containers than on shelves, where California (or foreign) oranges dominate the offerings.
In an age when news of food recalls due to E. coli and other contaminants are becoming increasingly common, people are becoming more concerned about where their food comes from and how it is grown. Buying local produce doesn’t guarantee that your food will be perfectly safe, but building a relationship with a local farmer or market can certainly increase the trust and confidence in the food you eat. Few people know how tomatoes are grown in a foreign land, or what chemicals or sanitation standards are adhered to in harvesting. No one really knows if the healthy-looking pink shrimp from the other side of the world is truly healthy or simply the result of a chemical spray used to enhance the appearance. For those with such concerns, buying locally is an answer to the nearly unfathomable mysteries of imported food. If nothing else, buying from local producers at least provides the comfort and satisfaction of knowing where the food you eat comes from. It also goes a long ways towards keeping the money you spend in the local economy.
Community supporting agriculture (CSA) is a growing trend across the nation, harkening back to days of old in terms of how people buy food. With CSA, people invest directly in local farming, paying a farmer upfront for a crop that is harvested months later. The benefits are many, as the upfront investments help a local farmer with cash flow and the investors know exactly from where their food comes because they have a relationship with the farmer who grew it. There are risks, of course, as a bad harvest is bad for everyone involved.
CSAs haven’t yet gained a foothold in South Hillsborough, but local agriculture is growing again. Although numerous produce stands exist along the highways and byways of the region, a few local businesses have emerged as local leaders in either growing or selling farm-fresh local products. 3 Boys Farm and Hydro Harvest Farms in Ruskin and Mabry’s Market in Wimauma are among the three leading businesses making names for themselves in providing farm-fresh organic food.
“Thanksgiving Dinner is always Fresh at the Farm” reads Hydro Harvest Farms’ twitter feed (@hydroharvest1). Hydro Harvest appears at numerous local festivals and monthly at the SouthShore Farmers Market in Ruskin. The farm and market on Shell Point Road in Ruskin also sells hydroponic equipment to help others get a start on their own organic farming.
3 Boys Farm offers their fresh produce weekly at the St. Petersburg Saturday Market downtown. The operation was founded by Robert Tornello, who helped people design rooftop gardens in New York City in the 1960s. Although the nation’s largest city may seem an odd place to get started in sustainable, organic agriculture, produce is arguably the most marketed of all products in neighborhoods throughout the Big Apple.
Today, 3 Boys Farm near Ruskin achieves year-around greenhouse crop production of numerous organic vegetables. They invite everyone from the South Hillsborough area to visit them at the St. Petersburg Saturday market, stating that on low-homework weekends, you’ll meet at least one or two of the three boys. They also have dog treats on hand for canine companions.
You can order half a pastured Berkshire pig from Mabry’s Market in Wimauma. You can also order grass-fed beef, eggs and a large selection of organic vegetables. Most of the produce is local but the market will source from nearby states, if necessary, to maximize the freshness of the crops. Their market offerings are continually updated on their website and orders can be placed online between Monday evening and Thursday noon. That allows the farmers to harvest and deliver the produce for pickup at the market on Friday.
With a rapidly growing and increasingly hungry world population, advancements in agricultural science and massive farming enterprises will be required more and more to feed the planet. But fortunately in America, the breadbasket of the world, and more specifically, in Florida with year-around organic farming now a reality, consumers have a choice. For many people, knowing where their food comes from, just like on the first Thanksgiving, is even more reason to be grateful for the bounty.