John Lawson is never far from a hearty laugh.
“I tell people that I’m a big man on a small farm,” he said, noting his large frame. “We’re not a big corporation, we’re just John and Terrie Lawson of Hydro Harvest Farms.”
A big man with a big laugh — and also a big heart.
For the month of August, Hydro Harvest Farms, located at 1101 East Shell Point Road in Ruskin, is offering a 50 percent discount on purchases for people in need of government food assistance, using EBT cards. The money to undertake the project is coming out of the Lawson’s pockets.
“Traditionally, people that are on assistance don’t always eat very well,” Lawson said. “They buy a lot of prepackaged convenience foods, things that we all enjoy but aren’t always the best for you. We’d like to teach people to eat a little bit better. Also, a lot of people on assistance don’t realize that most farm stands now take EBT. We’ve taken EBT for over a year now and it amazes me how little people use it.”
The number of people on government assistance for food has skyrocketed since the Great Recession began in 2007, as has the number of people, including children, who are considered food insecure — meaning that there may not always be enough food to go around.
“Hopefully this will help the parents to afford to buy healthy food,” Lawson said of the discount he is offering. “A lot of people don’t realize the magnitude of the problem and if there is anything we can do to shine a light on it, we need to do that. There is a vast amount of the population that is on assistance.”
The beginning of the school year this month can make things even tighter for area parents.
“Everyone is spending money on school supplies and I know that things can get a little tight in August,” he said. A lot of the children that are on assistance — for some the only meals they get are the breakfasts and lunches they are served in school. When they are out of school, it’s a toss up.”
For many people, even those of greater financial means, there is the belief that healthy foods are more expensive than pre-packaged products and even some fast food.
“People aren’t always tuned into buying the healthy food choices and they also perceive that buying healthy is more expensive, when in reality it can be the opposite,” Lawson continued. “Fast food has its place in the American diet. But you can’t eat it everyday. Not even the companies would suggest people eat it every day.”
Over the past weekend, Hydro Harvest Farms was selling bananas for 25 cents a pound. Fresh lettuce was available simply by cutting it off a hydroponics tower. There were fresh tomatoes on a display and okra and eggplant were also growing outside.
“The closer you can get to buying your food from the food source, the more nutrients it has in it,” Lawson said. “If you come to Hydro Harvest Farms and say you want lettuce you won’t see it in a cooler here. I tell people it’s right out there in that field, let’s go cut some. And this lettuce, if you soak it in ice water when you get home, it will still be fresh over three weeks from now. A head of lettuce in a store might have been picked two weeks ago. I’m not knocking grocery stores, we need grocery stores, but the closer you get to the food source, the better. “
Lawson said the discount would basically wipe out their profit for the month. But his community-based outlook goes beyond profit.
“We are basically giving it all away for the month of August,” he said. “We can’t afford to do it year around but we can afford to do it for a month.”
Over the course of the year, Hydro Harvest Farms also offers free community events. They even offer a free picnic area for people to use — no purchase required.
“We’re just starting our eighth year this season,” Lawson said. “We do a lot of events throughout the year. In October we have a huge pumpkin patch, with two truckloads of pumpkins. If parents want to come here to just take pictures, that’s fine with us. You don’t have to buy anything. We try to give each child a small pumpkin during the Boofest Halloween party. If you want a bigger pumpkin, you can buy one but you don’t have to.”
Lawson also bears a more than passing resemblance to a well-known seasonal figure.
“If you take a look at me, you can guess that in December Santa Claus comes around several times. My wife says that Santa is really here every day if you look. People can come here to take pictures with Santa, it doesn’t cost anything, and you don’t have to buy anything.”
John and Terrie Lawson are playing Santa in August, with the gift of healthy food, particularly for those in need. And for their customers who do not have an EBT/SNAP account, the couple is providing a 50 percent off coupon good for the month of August to anyone who has signed up for their newsletter via their website at www.hydroharvestfarms.com.
“The EBT discount, the reasons for it are obvious, Lawson said. “But for our regular customers that subscribe to our newsletter — about 8,200 people — at the bottom of that weekly email, there is a coupon included. If they are not on EBT and they print the coupon, they can get the discount, too.”
They also sell hydroponics to allow almost anyone to become a farmer on a small scale. According to Lawson, with one four tier hydroponics tower, a family would never have to buy another head of lettuce again. But according to Lawson, with hydroponics virtually anything can be grown; so don’t grow all lettuce, as the end result could be twenty heads of lettuce ready for harvest all at once.
Although August may be a slow time for farming, it is a busy time for Lawson who also helps to set up school gardens.
“We had a teacher, we put a big garden for her,” Lawson related. “She and her fourth grade class grew the vegetables, they picked the vegetables and then on Fridays they would set up a little farmer’s market to sell to the parents and teachers. The money they raised was used to open up a savings account and then whenever they needed supplies for their garden, they would use their savings account. She won the Governor’s award for economic excellence with that project. The Governor’s award was sponsored by Publix and it was all done with a hydroponic garden that we put in.”
The Lawson’s one-acre farm in Ruskin has the equivalent production of a six-acre farm. Customers can pick their vegetables right off the hydroponics towers and inside the stand are other fruits and vegetables, along with several varieties of goods made on site, including an incredible strawberry- jalapeño jam. It may not be a large grocery store but there is no way to get fresher food. You can look out and see exactly where your food comes from.
“The big focus would be the lack of proper nutrition and in our small way we’re trying to emphasize that better things can be had at a local level and affordably,” Lawson said. Obviously on a personal level, we hope that we gain a few more customers but even if they don’t come here, as long they are buying local, buying from any farm stands, we think that would be a plus.”
John Lawson is a big man with a big, hearty laugh on a small farm. He is a man with an even bigger heart. Perhaps John’s wife, Terrie, is right: Santa just might be there every day if you take the time to look.
Hydro Harvest Farms is located at 1101 East Shell Point Road. During the summer, the stand is closed on Mondays and Tuesday. After Labor Day and during the winter months, it is open seven days a week. For more information, visit www.hydroharvestfarms.com