While there are still some folks who enjoy combing the terra ferma for edible berries or truffles as our ancestors did, most of us today enjoy the luxuries of the supermarket to gather our next meal. Nonetheless, the mindsets of Central Floridians have changed a bit over the past decade, led by a yearning to return to our roots and forage for healthier, fresher foods.
Farmers markets have sprouted like fields of corn. Local restaurant owners pride themselves in touting farm to table menus. Even policies have changed to reflect this trend. The City of Orlando now allows chickens to be raised in backyards and produce to be grown in front yards. And businesses, like East End Market, have cropped up to help the local movement grow.
Meet at the Market
Heather Grove, community manager at East End Market, a neighborhood marketplace inspired by local farmers that opened in 2013, says the business is based on the belief that a “vibrant food culture is the foundation for a community’s quality of life.” To that end, she says they help like-minded businesses thrive by bringing local products to the public under one roof. Patrons can forage for fresh produce from Local Roots Farm Store, cheeses at La Femme du Fromage and coffee from Lineage. The market also offers courses for perfecting gardening and culinary skills.
Grove, a passionate local food entrepreneur, also coordinates Fleet Farming for East End Market, an urban farming concept in which volunteers travel by bike to farm sections of lawns donated by residents. About 10 to 20 trained volunteers meet biweekly for public “swarm rides” to tend to the 10 to 15 farmlettes in the Orlando area. The harvests are then sold at East End Market. More than 150 people have already donated their lawns and registered fruit trees with the program.
Beyond farmlettes, real farms are prospering amidst the burgeoning City Beautiful and its suburbs. Biggs Organic Farms in Pine Hills harvests a variety of fresh produce and offers paid private tours. The proceeds fund its Organic School Gardens project that works with local schools to empower and educate students about organic growing.
In south Orlando near Curry Ford Road and Lake Underhill Drive, Orlando Farms got involved in the crusade three years ago. “It’s a hobby that turned into a passion,” Jason Callison, owner of the two-acre working farm, says. “It all started with a bite from my grandmother’s garden tomatoes when I was a kid.”
A software engineer by day and farmer all his other waking hours, Callison leased the land when his vegetable growing habit began encroaching on his living space. From those innocent beginnings, he has morphed beyond simply planting some eggplant and jalapenos, to now raising pigs and chickens, selling eggs and experimenting with alternative vegetable growing techniques (e.g., aquaponics and hydroponics) to conserve water, cut down on labor and extend growing seasons. He also hold classes for children, teaching the virtues of local farming.
“This is an excellent opportunity for us because Orlando is still in the early stages,” he says. “But it’s growing.”
Farm to Table Foraging
A big part of the local food movement is about local restaurants implementing farm to table practices. “Orlando is really growing a lot in the farm to table concept,” says Grove, noting that Sunshine Plate, an organization that promotes Central Florida’s harvests, invites chefs to sign a pledge to pass farm names along to customers. Almost 30 local chefs have signed on.
Farm to table eateries can be discovered throughout Central Florida. The Smiling Bison thrives on local farm fresh food. At Ten 10 Brewing in Orlando, patrons savor pretzels baked from its own spent beer grain by the Olde Hearth Bread Company, Central Florida’s first handcrafted artisan bakery, which has a retail outlet at East End Market. Local foodies have been supporting Rusty Spoon in downtown Orlando since 2011, relishing dishes originating from Waterkist Farm in Winter Park and Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee.
Rusty Spoon owner William Blake says the farm to table concept is about chefs being cautious about what they put on their plates, and he is seeing more chefs adding farms to their menus. “I think it’s more than a fad,” he says, “but more a lifestyle people embrace.”
Beyond selling eggs and vegetables to family, friends and a couple of small businesses, Callison and Orlando Farms will soon be a part of the local farm to table movement. The restaurant Citrus would like to add his pasture-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free chickens to its menu. He will take it one restaurant at a time to be sure he gets it right.
“As a farmer, you can’t afford one bad experience,” he says. “Mother Nature can be vicious some times.”
Visiting the Farm
For those who are interested in picking out their own farm to table fresh fruits and vegetables, there are a number of “u-pick-em” farms scattered throughout the Orlando area.
Visit u-pick-em.com and enjoy a fun, family outing at places like Pappy’s Patch U-Pick Strawberries in Oviedo. The family will also enjoy a visit to Long & Scott Farms outside of Mt. Dora, where you can pick up seasonal fruits and vegetables and try your luck in the famous 7-acre corn maze.