The past few weeks have made for a good run here at Salt, Soil, and Supper as we dove into the wide-ranging issue of heirs' property preservation, primarily for Black landowners—and as I thought through (wrote through?) my own feelings about eventually returning to my family's land back in East Texas.
As it turns out, land ownership remains a topic on the minds of my guests this week, Raleigh Barnes and Annie Jiménez. The husband and wife farmer duo are the minds behind Hillsborough County, Florida's Third Insight Design and Nursery, a landscape consultancy and nursery that's geared around local food production. They're also both food justice advocates who come with strong opinions on how the community garden movement still has room to improve, and where it's falling short––in particular, something they call "private landowner syndrome."
The latter is their summarization of the regulatory issues they're running into with their community forest garden. Turns out, local food sovereignty isn't as important to, say, neighborhood HOAs as it is to folks in the community gardening and food sovereignty movement. On a similar note, we're also getting into some of the senseless export practices we're seeing in Florida, like how a majority of fresh fruit grown in the state is almost instantly packed up and shipped elsewhere rather than sold to locals.
Xander Peters: So, y'all are part nursery, part consultancy, and part community garden. Community gardens are all about the communities they are a part of. Can you talk to me a little bit about where you're planted?
Annie Jiménez: A lot of the community here is, let's say, retired. The average age of the community is probably between 60 and 75, and it is predominantly white. We are in that moment where we are noticing if there should be a framework for [how the garden works.]
The idea, originally at least, on Raleigh's behalf and some other members that started this with Raleigh, was that this would be much more open than what it is right now. Because people can really [only] access the garden when members of the garden are inside, because otherwise there's that fence. Riley and I are more the kind that are in favor of people, you know, stealing and just grabbing whatever they want, because that's what gardening is about—it's the experience, and also for children, and that rush that kids feel when they get the fruit or the flowers that they're not supposed to pick. But it is a whole learning experience in itself. We believe more in that than maybe the majority of the community, so we haven't been able to fully convince more people that the lock shouldn't be on the door.
XP: Describe your setup to me?
Raleigh Barnes: There's 24 raised beds, and then six ADA beds, which are actually table beds that can be used for wheelchair accessibility and/or those that just can't stand or can't sit for so long. Those are rentable plots. The Garden Club Lease works two ways: Garden Club members can rent a bed for 6 months at $25, or a year at $37.50; and Garden Club non-members can rent a bed for 6 months at $50, or a year at $75.
And then there's the community forest garden, that's kind of our baby.
XP: When you say community forest garden, what does that entail?
RB: That's like an integrated food forest that's literally supposed to be for any and everyone. But some politics in some weird ways have happened in the garden and basically, I wouldn't say it's an elitist group, but it's not open every day. When members are there that have access to the keypad, they're able to come into the garden. Of course, the Parks and Rec staff that's on site also has the code to get into the gate. But the impetus in the beginning was to have that fence open during hours of operation, so anybody can meander in. And then once the mangoes, bananas, papayas, lychees, all the passion fruit, all the exotic tropical fruits we can grow here in our subtropical climate do start to bear, that surplus was to be divided by the community and given back.
… It got really political within the realm of our cucumber sandwich ladies group, which I hate to put it like that. There is a "private property syndrome," as I like to call it, where the fence needs to be locked. We have signs on the outside of a garden that says trespassers will be composted. I mean call me a wuss, but I think that's a little violent. Private property syndrome is very, very, very rich within our direct community.
AJ: Florida is also extremely privileged in the sense of being able to grow basically every month out of the year, from vegetables to fruit trees to perennial vegetables. There's always something out there that you can harvest and eat. However, there are 1,200 people a day moving here. Hillsborough County is one of the fastest growing counties in Florida. So, with so many people coming here right now—and also, big corporations are growing, expanding extremely rapidly in Florida, trying to keep up with all this demand of consumption—land is not so accessible…
We, as small growers or small farmers have not had a lot of luck finding a small piece of land that is zoned for agricultural use where we can farm that is within our reach. A lot of the farmland is being rezoned for commercial or residential purposes. In terms of food justice, that means that farmers are being pushed more out of the boundaries of the city, or the suburbs. That means that there is even less connection between those who produce the food and those who consume it. Community gardens are very important, but they are not going to solve the problem of access to food if the farms are so far away from the average person.
Then on the complete flip side of that, we have South Florida, and specifically Homestead and Florida City, which are the most productive areas of Florida in terms of fruits and vegetables. We, as average Floridians, very rarely see produce from South Florida within our local communities, because all of this produce is just instantly exported. It is really hard to access. For example, we don't have real farmers' markets around us in the Tampa Bay area. If you go on the Hillsborough County website, you will find these things that are called farmers markets, but when you actually see a list of the vendors, I don't think a single one of them is an actual farmer––they are all people who are reselling already processed product, or they are making arts and crafts, they are artists selling their art or their jewelry. I would ask then, what is that in terms of food justice if we can't directly access the food from the farmers?
RB: There are markets through our prime growing season. There are incredible artisanal growers at these specific markets and at their farms, but a lot of that product is only available five months out of the year. You have another seven months where there's a lot of resellers. And Florida is really privileged because not only in Miami, but in Tampa Bay, we have two of the biggest ports, where a huge percentage of food that gets shipped to the northeast and elsewhere comes directly to this port. You have these gigantic mega, almost Costco-style distributors for veggies from all over the world that you can buy for pennies on the dollar and as a reseller, you can pick up and flip and sell in a farmer's market. I mean, how is it that we were in peak mango season here in Florida in June and you can't find a Florida mango anywhere outside of the mango growing areas? It's gobbled up so quickly and shipped elsewhere that local produce is having a hard time even finding its way five, six hours away from where it's being produced. I'm not a genius, but it doesn't make sense.