The Tampa Tribune
By George Wilkens

Image courtesy of Hajhouse
Image courtesy of Hajhouse

TOWN ‘N COUNTRY — In 1978, when Rick Martinez became an organic farmer, there was no indication the then-unusual practice of growing pesticide-free vegetables would mushroom in coming decades.It wasn’t easy being green then, nor much better 15 years later when Martinez launched Sweetwater Organic Community Farm.

“Organic farmer… what’s that?” Martinez often was asked. “People didn’t even know what it meant,” said the 59-year-old third-generation Tampa native. “Today it’s really part of our culture. “Green has become a real big catch phrase” to market everything from hair products to pet foods and, ironically, pesticides.

“We had no idea about how well Sweetwater would be received and supported and how fast it would grow. It’s far exceeded all my expectations,” said Martinez. “We started with seven members and today we have over 300.”

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Members receive a share of the crops produced by Florida’s oldest community-supported farm using membership-style marketing. But education is the primary mission of the recognized pioneer in organic agriculture and principles of healthy living.

Members’ dues subsidize the farm’s education sessions. “Probably over 15,000 children have attended our field trip program,” with 2,000 more anticipated this year, Martinez said. In addition to students from elementary and middle schools, university students tour the 6-acre farm on Comanche Avenue off West Hillsborough Avenue .

“We try and give them a little bit of a rounded exposure,” Martinez said one recent morning as two busloads of third-graders tried farming.

Pam Schreiner, the farm’s education coordinator, led the Helen Davis Elementary students through various tasks, from transplanting greenhouse sprouts in “The Future Farmers Garden” to pulling weeds that small hands later fed to the farm’s chickens.

“Then when they get done” with the 21/2-hour field trip, “they’ll eat a little salad we’ve prepared form our crops here on the farm,” Martinez said.

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Like Davis Elementary, many schools visiting the farm receive extra federal funding because a high percentage of their students are from low-income families. “We have some fundraising programs where we help Title I schools pay some of their costs,” Martinez said.

Although interest in organic foods has spiraled in recent years, school districts have struggled to get by on tight budgets, Martinez said. “Where that hits them is on extracurricular activities, such as school field trips and paying for buses.”

Toward its goal of helping students, Sweetwater plans to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a “Farm-to-Fork” dinner Feb. 10 at Samba Room in South Tampa (see related story).

Even a brief visit to Sweetwater can create long-lasting childhood memories, Martinez said.

“It’s funny to see child pull a radish or carrot out of the ground for the first time,” he said. “Their eyes pop open like it’s some big magic trick. I even had one kid accuse me of sticking the carrots in the ground before he got here.”

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