By Ana Veciana-Suarez
On a muggy summer day, as bruised clouds gather overhead, Margie Pikarsky wends her way through her five-acre farm pointing proudly at strips of cultivated land and a growing compost pile. A blue jay swoops across the field, then another. In the distance a cardinal trills.
“I feel very connected to nature,” Pikarsky, 57, says, and then adds with a wry laugh. “I have this Mother Earth thing going.”
Indeed. Pikarsky has been running Bee Heaven, an organic farm in South Dade’s Redland area, since 1995, when pesticide-free farming was more a boutique niche than thriving business. She harvests honey, collects organic eggs and grows familiar fruits and vegetables as well as exotics — mostly Asian greens — that do well in South Florida soil.
She sells them at farmer’s markets and through Redland Organics, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiative that allows people to buy “shares” upfront in return for weekly selections of organic produce during the growing season.
Pikarsky has not drawn a salary yet, but the farm has been making a small profit for the past four years.
“Try this,” Pikarsky says, picking a plump red ciruela, a tropical plum from a tree. “Have you ever had anything like this?”
Later she offers up a pinkish-red berry-size fruit nicknamed cotton candy because it tastes like the carnival favorite. “You would never get this at the supermarket and if you did, you would walk by it because you wouldn’t know what it is.”
MORE THAN A FARMER
Pikarsky sees herself as more than a farmer. She is, in many ways, both educator and flag-bearer for a growing movement that encourages eating local food, in season, without the use of fertilizers, pesticides or other synthetic chemicals. It’s good for the consumer and good for the land, devotees say.
“There is more and more awareness of a healthy lifestyle and how our food is grown and processed and treated in relation to that,” says Marty Mesh, executive director of the Gainesville-based Florida Organic Growers Association. “It’s no longer just about eating a mango, but about eating a locally grown organic mango.”
Pikarsky is one of about a dozen organic farmers in Miami-Dade certified by Florida Organic Growers, which operates a USDA accreditation program. Broward has only one organic farm, in Pembroke Pines. There are about 130 certified organic producers — the label includes both crop and livestock — in Florida.
The number of organic farms in Miami-Dade and Broward has been constant over the past few years. Mary Lamberts, a Cooperative Extension Service agent who works with Miami-Dade growers, says it’s tough to be organic in this area because farms tend to be small and susceptible to pests.
“We’re not going to see a lot more organic farms in this area because of the pest problem,” Lamberts says. “It’s really a challenge. There are nurseries next to groves next to farms all one pressed against the other.”
At Bee Heaven, Donnie and Hardee avocados are the primary product of the summer, but there are also mangoes, longans, lychees, carambola and rare fruits like the Indian jujubes, small, round burnt-orange fruit. During South Florida’s fall and winter growing season, Pikarsky has a lot of Asian and salad greens, various choys and a collection of heirloom veggies, such as pole beans and tomatoes.
When a client buys a Redland Organics share, “you have to be willing to be surprised. You’re going to get whatever the farmers are growing and harvesting that season. One week you may get a pint of tomatoes, another week a quart,” Pikarsky says.
Kathryn Herring of Cutler Bay has been splitting a Redland Organics share with a friend since the CSA’s inception. A Pilates instructor, she’s learned to eat different vegetables because she was exposed to them through her share. She often uses recipes that Pikarsky includes in a weekly newsletter customers receive.
“I’ve grown from not being crazy about Asian greens to really liking them,” she says. “Now I even get friends to try things they’ve never tried before.”
Kristin Jayd, another customer who lives south of Homestead, says she buys Redland Organic because its products are healthier and tastier than many store offerings.
“Just because you see a green label that says organic on the package, it’s not necessarily a better choice. You don’t know how far that food has traveled, and I’d rather give my money to my immediate community anyway,” says the mother of two.
Pikarsky’s life is dictated by the rhythm of the seasons. During the busy winter, weeks blend one into another as she balances administrative work with the hard labor of a farm. The produce is picked on Thursday, packed on Friday and delivered to pick up sites on Saturdays. Sundays are devoted to markets. She has both paid help and “woofers,” volunteers through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program that work in exchange for food, board and a chance to learn about organic lifestyles.
In summer, she plants a cover crop that will restore nutrients and organic matter to the soil. That crop is then tilled in preparation of the growing season. Every crop is rotated so it is grown in the same area only every third year. She also uses bug-resistant varieties and BT (bacillus thuringiensis), a naturally occurring pesticide, to keep varmints at bay.
Banana trees share space with yucca or basil in “companion interplanting.” She follows the philosophy of permaculture farming, self-sustaining agriculture that uses symbiotic relationships between plants.
Thirteen chicken tractors — floorless, movable chicken coops — allow her egg-layers to enjoy free-range movement while enjoying shelter from predators, including neighborhood pets. In this safe environment, the chickens forage for bugs and grass without the necessity of commercial feed. Even the hedges around the property do double duty, providing bird-attracting berries.
“It’s another way of nurturing nature,” she says.
CHILDHOOD IN CUBA
Pikarsky learned about nature as a child in Cuba. Her father was an attorney in Havana during the week and a hobby farmer on weekends and holidays. The family’s plot of land outside Havana was full of tropical fruit trees and he loved grafting them for propagation.
Exiled to Miami at 8, she grew up in Little Havana but always pined for fresh air and open land. As a biology and psychology student at the University of Miami, she moved out of the dorm and headed south, closer to nature. At one point, she and her first husband rented a house in a lime grove off Southwest 147th Avenue and started a garden.
“I always had to have green stuff around me,” she says. “Even when I was living in an apartment in Coral Gables (after her divorce), I had a room full of plants.”
When she married her second husband, Nick, in 1986, they bought a house in South Dade and planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden, experimenting with organic techniques. She biked through the rural streets and longed to live in a community “where if you break down on the side of the road, four or five people will stop to help you.”
Her chance came when Hurricane Andrew pummeled South Dade, sending real estate prices to the basement. When the family moved in to the property on Southwest 264 Street with their only child, 9-month-old Rachel, Pikarsky wasn’t sure what she would grow but she knew it would follow organic strictures.
“I don’t want to eat poison and I don’t want to put poison in the ground either,” she says.
Bee Heaven was certified by the Florida Certified Organic Growers & Consumers (FOG) in 1997 and two years later, the avocado grove produced its first commercial crop. But it wasn’t until 2000, when she quit her job in information technology for the University of Miami, that Pikarsky devoted herself to the farm full-time.
“It was like I was coming home. All I wanted to do was dig my fingers in the dirt.”
To expand her market, she decided to start her own CSA service in 2001. Twelve people signed up. But she soon realized her little farm could not provide enough variety for consumers, so she joined forces with Paradise Farm owner Gabriele Marewski. With a half dozen other local organic growers, they formed Redland Organics and sold an initial offering of 40 shares. Even with the double wallop of Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, membership in Redland Organics exploded. One of several in the area, the CSA now has 500 subscribers and between 8 and 10 contributing growers. Sign ups began this month; new members are accepted only if an existing share owner has not renewed.
It’s an idyllic time for Pikarsky. Daughter Rachel will be off to college in New York this fall and Redland Organics has blossomed into a business that keeps her very busy. She has been featured in magazines and blogged about by foodies.
What next? “I’d like to retire one day,” she says. “But I’d like to see this work continue. I want to make sure I pass this on to somebody who is as passionate as I am.”
For more information on Bee Heaven and Redland Organics, visit www.pikarco.com