Growing in Gainesville: Farms are booming in North Central Florida

Following the market crash of 2008, many Americans were forced out of their jobs and ultimately changed career paths. Surprisingly, the financial crisis, along with other key variables, actually helped to trigger growth in the local farming movement.

Jordan Brown, owner of The Family Garden in southeast Gainesville, is one of the Americans who lost work following the crash. “Jordan is an incredible carpenter, but after the economy bottomed out and the construction jobs stopped coming, he decided he would make a career out of farming,” said Katie Conley, the coordinator for The Family Garden.

Brown saw his gardening space, a 10-acre empty lot next to his house in Bell, Florida, as an opportunity to convert his hobby into a career. His family now owns an additional 20 acres of farmland in Gainesville, known as The Family Garden.

The owners of Red, White and Blues Farm in Williston also changed career paths after the crash. Their bamboo farm and palm tree nursery in South Florida were no longer reaping the profits needed to sustain the operations. “When the market crashed in 2008, a lot of people weren’t buying bamboo and palm trees – they were buying food,” said Red, White and Blues Farm owner Sarah Robinson.

Jenni Williams, the communications director for Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers (FOG), supports the notion that the crash affected the farming industry but indicated other reasons as well. “The farming movement is growing for a variety of reasons, probably including the market crash in 2008,” Williams said. “Other reasons include the growing transparency of mega companies coming forth and revealing what is in their products and the desire to grow and harvest food themselves. Farmers are taking matters into their own hands and providing fresh produce for themselves and their families.”

Florida, specifically Gainesville and the surrounding area, became a particular draw for farmers because of the soil and water quality. The area is home to a wide variety of farms – both organic and conventional – cultivating fruit, vegetables and even Christmas trees. (Yes, Christmas trees!)

Unicorn Hill Christmas Tree Farm, a family-owned choose-and-cut operation, is located in Gainesville. After a graduate student surveyed the family’s 9 acres and proposed different options for how to utilize it, ranging from raising goats to growing produce, the Gregory family chose to grow Christmas trees.

“Christmas trees smell better than goats,” said owner Cathryn Gregory.

Unicorn Hill Christmas Tree Farm produces six varieties, including Florida sand pines, red cedars and two types of Arizona cypress. While the farm’s busy period begins in December, the farm really has no off season.

“Even though we are not [currently] selling trees, there is always work to be done,” Gregory said. “Besides planting the seedlings, each tree must be staked to help it grow straight – no one wants a crooked tree!”

April is also an important month for the farm, as mowing and herbicide applications truly begin. The family also closely inspects for flushes of disease, as well as unwelcome insects, to ensure the success of the season.

“We feel that an important part of our farm is sharing with others the experience of seeing how Christmas trees are produced,” Gregory said. “So few people today have a relationship with a working farm, and this is a new adventure for them. My husband always says that we really are selling an experience.”

The previously mentioned Red, White and Blues Farm is a 100-acre family-owned farm in Williston with 60 acres dedicated to blueberries. Before the Robinson family made the switch from palm trees to blueberries, they tested soil from Orlando to Georgia and found that Williston had optimal conditions.

“Williston had almost off the charts water and soil to grow blueberries,” Robinson said. “Blueberries are 90 percent water, so the main thing [for us] was to have good water. My husband basically one day told me we were moving to Williston.”

Red, White and Blues Farm grows seven varieties and opens for u-pick blueberry season this month. The site also features a playground, restrooms, and a sweet shop for visitors. The owners provide buckets and harnesses for pickers.

The Robinsons pride themselves on patriotism (hence the farm’s name) and plan to partner with veteran organizations in the near future, including a 5K run at the end of May.

In addition to the conventional-farming industry, Florida’s organic-farming industry is also booming. Founded in 1987, the nonprofit corporation Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers (FOG) supports and promotes organic and sustainable agriculture. Its main goal is to support organic farmers as well as local food systems through education and training.

“There are many, many benefits to organic farming – better for the environment, better for the consumer and overall sustainable for the farmer,” Williams said.

The corporation also received its USDA accreditation to certify farms as organic in 2001 and has certified several farms in the Gainesville area.

Jordan Brown’s The Family Garden is one of the farms certified through a program operated under FOG. This year is the farm’s first full season in Gainesville, and the owners recently opened the farm to the public for u-pick strawberries.

Whether one is searching for organic or conventional products, Christmas trees or produce, one can find it at the farms in Gainesville and its surrounding areas. The important thing to remember, Williams of FOG says, is to eat locally and support area farms.

“Supporting both conventional and organic farmers is essential to keeping the farming movement going,” Williams said. “It’s a win-win for both farmers and the communities they serve. Know your farmer, know your food.”

By Haley Clement

Photos courtesy of Sarah Robinson of Red, White and Blues Farm in Williston

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