Category Archives: Farms and Agriculture

Garden to Cafeteria | Making STEM Tasty at the Success Academy

In today’s video, we look at a school garden that feeds and educates students. We also look at different community efforts looking to bring nutritious food to Tallahassee residents living in food deserts.  

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Today on the menu at the Success Academy: black eyed peas.  It’s not a main dish, but possibly the most interesting.  It’s the first time the cafeteria is serving food grown in the Success Academy garden. Continue reading

Eluster Richardson | Painting Life on a Red Hills Tenant Farm

Welcome to Part 8 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the April 14 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Through ten 3-minute videos, we’ll explore the natural soul of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia, from the pine uplands down to its rivers, lakes, and farms.  Thanks to Tracy Horenbein for creating original compositions for this video series.  The series is narrated by Jim McMurtry. 

Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

A lot of history doesn’t make it into history books.  Artist Eluster Richardson refers to those “everyday scenes we took for granted.”  Kids playing under a farmhouse.  A community gathering around a mill to grind sugar cane.  A farmer working the field with a mule.  For an artist, it’s a challenge trying to recreate scenes of a bygone past, especially when there aren’t always photos or other imagery.  When he was commissioned to paint these scenes for the Jones Tenant House at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Eluster did have one thing going for him.  He lived them. Continue reading

Sweetgrass Cheese Shop- Celebrating Farms of the Red Hills

Welcome to Part 7 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the April 14 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Through ten 3-minute videos, we’ll explore the natural soul of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia, from the pine uplands down to its rivers, lakes, and farms.  Thanks to Tracy Horenbein for creating original compositions for this video series.  The series is narrated by Jim McMurtry. 

Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

I’m walking on a cow pasture after the rain, and the mud is sometimes hard to distinguish from the cow-pies.  My production assistant, Brian, and I set the tripod.  When we look up, a couple of hundred cows are all staring at us. Murmurations of birds make their way through the cows and into an adjacent field.  A misty sunrise unfolds behind the feed tower at Buddha Belly Dairy in Quitman Georgia.

Buddha Belly was once Green Hill Dairy, where Al and Desiree Wehner started what would become Sweetgrass Dairy (Buddha Belly is now owned by their son Clay).  The milk produced by these grass-fed cows will be made into cheese in Thomasville and sold locally or in any of 38 states where Sweetgrass cheeses are shipped. Continue reading

Growing Mushrooms and Cleaning the Forest at Lake Seminole

Mushrooms are one of the few foods we eat that are neither plant or animal. We trek to Lake Seminole Farm, where two men took a chance and have started a mushroom growing operation. In looking at how mushrooms grow, we get an unexpected lesson in forest ecology.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Lake Seminole Farm grows shiitake mushrooms (pictured in the banner image above) and pink oyster mushrooms.

Lake Seminole farm grows shiitake mushrooms (pictured in the banner image above) and pink oyster mushrooms.

Mushrooms are a food with a mystique about them.  They’re like oysters or sushi.  There are serious enthusiasts willing to spend good money on certain varieties; others are repulsed at the thought of them.  Think of the possible outcomes of trying a random mushroom found in the woods.  You discover amazing flavor.  You become sick.  You die.  You take an unexpected mystic voyage into the depths of your psyche.  This is not a food that is like the other food you eat, and so it makes sense that a mushroom farm doesn’t exactly look like most other farms.

Lake Seminole Farm grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms (I love the symmetry of the Apalachicola River- the body of water to its south has oysters, the body of water to its north has oyster mushrooms).  David Krause studied fungi at FSU and USF, part of a career path that led to his being Florida’s state toxicologist from 2008 through 2011.  In 2011, he took a chance and decided to put his land to work.  Living on Lake Seminole, his property has the dense tangle of hardwoods that you find on a floodplain.  Those oak and gum trees are perfect for growing shiitake mushrooms.  But the farm doesn’t exclusively use logs gathered on the property. Continue reading

Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills Part 2

Over the past couple of months we’ve made a foray into local agriculture, an industry that’s of critical importance to the ecology of our area.   We’re now in the process of setting up some new adventures that get us back on the water- both salt and fresh.  And of course, our EcoShakespeare segments will begin airing January 28 on Dimensions (before streaming here).  We’re always looking for new ways to interact with the outdoors, and we always want to hear your suggestions for how we can accomplish this.  Don’t be shy about leaving comments!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Miccosukee Root Cellar strives to be a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers.  Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

Miccosukee Root Cellar is a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers. Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

“Eating local means eating seasonal,” Katie Harris told me in an unused clip from her interview.  That means that if you want to go full locavore, you’ll soon be saying goodbye to fresh tomatoes and yellow squash and hello to chard and broccoli.  Katie co-manages the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance with Louise Divine, who we interviewed in part one of this video.  Part of their public outreach is to provide recipes and seasonal calendars to consumers who may not be used to limiting themselves to food that grows within a few counties of their house.  The food that will grow in north Florida will vary with our seasons, and so eating locally means adjusting to what’s available.  Eating locally is one of those things that’s easy to get behind.  You’re supporting the local economy.  And you’re supporting the environment, aren’t you?  Let’s take a closer look.

The primary environmental argument often used in favor of eating locally are the “food miles” traveled by the food.  Tomatoes from a Red Hills farm may travel 20-30 miles to get to my house.  Tomatoes grown in Mexico, which you may see at your grocery store of choice, have traveled over 1,000 miles by truck or plane to get here.  A lot of gasoline is used to transport food around the world.  A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council on the emissions of California’s imported foods found that in 2005, 250,000 tons of global warming gasses were produced by incoming food products, as much as 40,000 cars.  And that’s just one state in one country.

But food miles are just one factor in the equation.  A post on the Harvard Extension Blog looked at data for total carbon used in food production and found that, overall, most emissions occur from the production of food rather than their transport to market.  This is especially true of meat products, which alone account for more greenhouse emissions than all cars and trucks on earth.  Cows, sheep, and goats belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and a lot of energy goes into producing the grain they eat.  That’s food miles and the fertilizer it takes to grow the grain.  Which gets us to how produce is grown.

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Aaron Suko, co-manager at Full Earth Farm, lays ribbon hose along an unused row. Drip irrigation uses water more efficiently than center pivot irrigation, a technique used on many large farms.

In a 2008 article in the Guardian on the “Myth of Food Miles,” green beans grown in Nigeria are presented as a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local product.  A professor they interview touts Nigerian growing methods, which don’t use tractors (all manual labor, no gas) or cow manure, and use low-impact irrigation.  The Harvard Extension blog post referenced a study that showed lamb grown in New Zealand is a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local lamb, because New Zealand lambs are pastured (eating the grass that grows on the ground) and live on farms that use hydroelectric power (This blog post from Oregon Public Broadcasting, while ultimately agreeing that grass is a greener feed for cattle, does a good job of outlining the controversy over which feed is more environmentally friendly).

While sustainable practices are not a prerequisite for membership in the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, The farms we’ve highlighted do practice organic techniques (the lone meat producer we featured in part 1 of this video, Golden Acres Ranch, isn’t organic but aims to be “all natural”).  In our Sharing Water Conference segment, we see how Katie (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) and Herman Holley (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) prepare compost intended to provide fertilization to their plants without contributing nitrate runoff to local waterways.  They both use tractors for certain tasks but, as you see in the video above, do a lot of work manually as well.  As Katie’s co-manager at Full Earth, Aaron Suko, says in the video, they can be efficient by planting at the right times, hoeing weeds when they’re small, and being organized.  “You just got to work smarter, and not harder.”  This, they tell me, is the key to small, sustainable farming.

There are advances and techniques that both conventional and organic farmers are exploring to increase efficiency and help preserve natural resources.  Here are a few that we’ve covered on WFSU-TV:

  • My fellow WFSU producer Mike Plummer recently visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna.  There, he learned about their research into reducing methane emissions from cows.  In another segment, he looks at their research into better selective breeding of cattle.
  • Mike also visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, where they are working on a sod based rotation system that aims to improve irrigation by alternating plots of bahia grass with crops.  They claim that if the techniques were to be adopted, they could reduce water usage of farms along the Flint River to a degree that would greatly increase freshwater flows downstream on the Apalachicola.
  • P1070982-smallerThe IFAS Research Center in Quincy is also looking at satsuma oranges as a potential crop for north Florida.  They are cold hardier, meaning they would perform better here than other varieties grown in the state.  In fact, some Red Hills farms are already growing this Japanese variety.
  • Red Hills farms are experimenting with rotating different crops that would help build soil.  Wayne Hawthorne at Blue Ridge Farm has planted sodbuster radish in his outdoor beds.  This New Zealand import has roots that are supposed to break up hard soils (like the red clay that is prevalent in our area), add a natural fungicide to the soil, and then tap into minerals deep in the soils without tilling.  He sent some of his seeds to a friend working at an IFAS extension in Ruskin, Florida, where they’ll perform their own experiments.
  • Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth experiment with cover crops.  Full Earth’s Aaron explained to us the benefits.  Cover crops are planted in plots not currently in production.  Their roots keep the soil from eroding.  Sometimes they plant sunflowers, which attract pollinators.  They also plant legumes, which naturally add nitrogen to soil (lessening the need for added fertility).
  • Also in the aforementioned Sharing Water Conference video, we visited Simpson’s Nursery, which uses Monticello’s reclaimed water and recycles water on site to reduce aquifer withdrawals.  This is by no means a small local farm (every Red Hills Farm together might fit in its 1400 acres), and its water usage is considerable.

Sharing Water Conference: Agriculture Solutions

The above photo of an algae covered turtle swimming among algae mats was taken at a sinkhole near to Wakulla Spring.  The sink is a stop on Jim Stevenson’s Wakulla Spring Overland Tour, which WFSU will be taping as part of our EcoShakespeare series.  Jim uses the sink as an example of the connectivity between area sinks and Wakulla Spring, and to illustrate the high level of nitrates entering the spring.  Wakulla Spring’s issues are representative of those facing the larger Floridan aquifer, through which the Wakulla Spring underground cave system runs.  The Floridan aquifer was the focus of the Sharing Water Conference in Monticello earlier this month.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Are agriculture and the environment inherent enemies?  Seven billion people on this planet need to eat.  Industrial agriculture produces food on a large scale, but can tax water supplies and create nutrient rich runoff that can wreck marine and freshwater ecosystems.   Small organic farms like those in the video above take great care to use practices that protect waterways.  But can the world be fully fed by this type of agriculture?  In early October, a diverse group of people gathered in Monticello to discuss issues such as these.

On October 2-4 2014, the Sharing Water Conference looked at issues facing the Floridan aquifer.  Geologists, legislators, lawyers, land and water managers, farmers, and other concerned citizens gathered to learn about the aquifer and the challenges facing it.  Through a series of multidisciplinary discussions, the conference looked to find innovative solutions facing this giant limestone formation that stretches from South Carolina to Orlando.

The aquifer is the source of springs and rivers.  And it is also the source of the tap water within its range.  Tallahassee has 27 wells that bore beneath the clay of our red hills and into well protected limestone.  Cities like Tallahassee and Monticello are situated on red clay which filters pollutants from water as it sublimes into the earth.  It’s great protection for the aquifer, but it also means that water fills it slowly, possibly at a rate less than that we withdraw.

In his speech at the conference and in his interview with us, State Senator Bill Montford lamented a decrease in the quality and quantity of water in our springs.  As was noted in a recent report on the state of Wakulla Spring, the slow recharge rate of the Red Hills proportionate to water consumption is listed as a possible cause in the increase in the Spring’s dark water days.  In other words, we may be using that clear water faster than rain can replace it.  The report advocates conservation measures, and public education on better conservation practices.

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This water treatment facility in Monticello, FL, uses a five-carousel system to filter human waste from wastewater. The water then travels four miles south to a lake at Simpson’s Nursery. Treated effluent accounts for about 400,000 of the 2 million gallons the nursery uses daily.

Another issue facing Wakulla Spring is an increase of nutrients in the water supply.  A problem area identified in the report are the spray fields in the south of Tallahassee, where “gray water” is sprayed on plants in a field located north of sinkholes that feed the Wakulla Spring system.  Gray water is treated sewage, with most of the “sludge” removed (What is sludge?  Watch the video.  I apologize in advance for the image).  It does still contain nitrates, an excess of which can contribute to algae growth and possibly the growth of invasive hydrilla.  Driving with springs advocate Jim Stevenson yesterday to scout our Wakulla Springs Shakespeare EcoAdventure, he did mention that improvements are being made to the wastewater treatment plant feeding the spray fields that would reduce nitrates from over 12 mg per liter to under 3 mg/L.

As you can see in the video, there is a similar arrangement in Monticello between that city and Simpson’s Nursery.  The nursery is located north of the Cody Escarpment, in the Red Hills region; the Tallahassee spray fields are located on the Woodville Karst Plain.  The Red Hills filters water and protects the aquifer; on the WKP, the aquifer is much closer to the surface and water enters more freely.  The Simpson’s Nursery arrangement seems beneficial to the nursery and to the city of Monticello.  The city is spared the expense of disposing of its gray water, and doing so in a way that keeps it out of waterways.  The nursery pumps 400,000 gallons a day less from the aquifer, saving in electrical costs.  These are the kinds of solutions that were sought at the Sharing Water Conference- private business working together with government to mutual benefit and to the benefit of our groundwater supply.

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Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms use a compost made from fish waste and wood chips. The fish waste comes from local seafood markets, the wood chips from tree cutters. These products would otherwise have sat in landfills, but now they are used to fertilize plants on these small organic farms. #fishcompost

In the final part of the video, I included interviews I conducted for segments on the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance (watch our first Red Hills Farm EcoAdventure here).  I wanted to show alternative methods of protecting waterways.  There is a lot of noise about wetlands legislation, and it is definitely important to decide how best to conserve sensitive ecosystems.  But many of the burdens placed on our water supply can be eased by more efficient practices in our homes, businesses, and farms.  Simpson’s Nursery uses reclaimed and recycled water and reduces their withdrawals from the aquifer.  Turkey Hill and Full Earth farms fertilize their plants using materials that would otherwise sit in a landfill, creating compost that keeps nutrients in soils and out of water (not to mention saving local fish markets a trip to the dump).  These are practices that are cost effective as well as environmentally friendly.

Cost effective AND environmentally friendly.  Beneficial to business AND government.  Solutions are out there, and they don’t always have to arise from conflict, which is so often at the center of environmental debates.  Do any of you reading this know of any similar “win-win” arrangements that benefit the environment and private interests?  Let us know below in the comments section.

Slide presentations from the Sharing Water Conference were uploaded to their site earlier this week.  They are packed with information for those of us who want to learn more.

Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills

Tennessee Fainting Goats and Red Zinger Tea! There are many interesting things to be found on small farms. Watch as we visit Golden Acres Ranch in Monticello and Turkey Hill Farm in Tallassee’s Baum Community.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

As I was starting preproduction for this piece, my wife Amy prepared a map of Red Hills Small Farm Alliance member farms.  It’s interesting to see the proximity of these farms to water.  Agriculture is of key importance to our water, from the withdrawals farms make from our aquifer to any runoff they might send back to waterways, into sinkholes, and back into the aquifer.  Every farm interacts with its natural surroundings in different ways.

Louise Divine harvests Roselle at Turkey Hill Farm.

Louise Divine harvests Roselle at Turkey Hill Farm.

The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance is a collective of small farms located within 100 miles of Tallahassee, mostly within what is considered to be the Greater Red Hills Region.  This range encompasses several watersheds, from the Wakulla Springshed to the Ochlockonee, St. Marks, and Aucilla rivers.  Many of these waterways have been the setting for previous EcoAdventures, and so have  the protected lands around them.  In the video above, we explore a different kind of outdoor setting that has the potential to either protect or degrade our water.

These small farms make for an interesting alternative kind of outdoor activity.  Many are open to the public to varying degrees (please do call first), and especially so during New Leaf Market’s Farm Tour.  On October 25 and 26, Red Hills farms and other local food producers will open the doors for the public to see.  Many will have rides, treats, and activities for kids.  As I mentioned in my previous post, kids are becoming increasingly out of touch with nature.  The same thing is happening with people and their understanding of where food comes from.  This is part of why these farms are welcoming visitors.  They care about how food is grown, and they often love to share it with you.

The Red Hills Small Farm Alliance has created an event that dovetails with Farm Tour, Seven Days of Local Delights.  Seven Days is a series of workshops, cooking classes, and film screenings like- shameless plug- WFSU’s Oyster Doctors playing at Tall Timbers.

Many of these farms are organic, or at the very least are dedicated to a sustainable way of growing food.  This isn’t a requirement for joining, but RHSFA CO-Executive Directors Louise Divine (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) and Katie Harris (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) make sure to offer opportunities to learn about sustainable practices through their Growers Circle workshops.  In the video above, we see a little about how Turkey Hill and Golden Acres Ranch raise their products.  Bobbie Golden decided that organic standards were a little too stringent for Golden Acres, but her animals are kept free from chemicals and hormones, and have space to roam.  On the other hand, Louise and Herman Holley at Turkey Hill are fully dedicated to organic agriculture.  And as we find in our next segment, set to air on October 29 (7:30 pm ET on WFSU-TV), Bobbie, Louise, and Herman take great care to see that their actions on the farm protect our water supply.

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Bobbie Golden reflects by her sinkhole at Golden Acres ranch.

In this next segment, we revisit the recent Sharing Water Conference win Monticello.  We visit a Monticello water treatment plant that connects directly to Simpsons Nursery.  They have a novel system for reclaiming and reusing water that intends to both conserve water usage and keep wastewater out of the aquifer.  We also revisit the farms featured in the video above.  Golden Acres has some sensitive wetlands on their property, which has Bobbie Golden thinking about water issues.  And Herman shows us how he makes compost.   His process uses materials that might otherwise sit in landfills and creates a means of fertilizing plants that minimizes the flow of nutrients into local waterways (for them, Black Creek, a tributary of the St. Marks River).

Also coming up, Shakespeare will take over the Ecology Blog for the month of January.  Details will be released soon, but it’s a different kind of project for us, one that involves biologists and actors, breathtaking vistas and the words of a man who was surprisingly into nature.  Also, I follow up on my previous post, where I took my three-year-old son kayaking on the Wakulla River.  His real water obsession is the Apalachicola River.  He and I joined RiverTrek 2014 for a couple of miles, camping and kayaking at Owl Creek.

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