Head south on Florida’s Turnpike to Homestead at Exit 5 and you’re in the heart of The Redland, South Florida’s agricultural sweet spot. As you cross US-1 west, farms, original clapboard homes of early settlers, u-pick fields and coral rock walls whiz by. The Redland was named for pockets of red clay in the limestone terrain, which is fed by pure water from the Biscayne Aquifer and has been a natural laboratory for agriculturalists, botanists, and naturalists around the world, including John James Audubon and David Fairchild. It’s a place locals rush to re-familiarize themselves with this time of year, enduring the tourist-stacked lines for Knaus Berry Farm sticky buns and strawberry shakes, while small white flowers dance on baby plants in the fields behind beckoning a winter harvest that can’t come soon enough.
But this heartland is more like hardland and no one is more familiar with that than farmer Chuck Lyons. Like Henry Flagler’s railroad pioneers before him, Lyons had to work hard to coax fertility out of the 5-acre plot now known as Verde Farm. Not only is its weed pressure serious, but this meticulously laid out field and greenhouse operation was pre-Hurricane Andrew Homestead Air Force Base. That means concrete.
“We spent a lot of time and money getting stuff out. It wasn’t easy, and we weren’t the first to try,” Lyons explains of the land owners before he came in three years ago. “First off, this is old rockland, not that ideal, receded-Everglades Redland soil. We’ve got grasses, and grasses produce lots of seeds.”
And by grasses, we’re not talking about what’s in your backyard at home. They are sky-high, more like a grass forest. It took Lyons two weeks with a brush mower to clear the field himself. He had little equipment or help — a back hoe and concrete saw to cut through slabs of concrete from the old military base and a skid steer to tear through it. There were foundation footers with metal beams, and a pile of discarded palates and tires, left from the previous owner.
The operation is a beneficiary of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust and collaborates with Carrfour Supportive Housing, a community comprised of 145 formerly homeless families living in LEED-certified townhouses. Fresh produce also reaches Camillus House Properties and the Chapman Partnership for the Homeless. The first main harvests began in October, with fast growing sprouts of greens – and continue into February and March with field harvests.
Today Verde Farms is thriving as a community system, a working organic farm that teaches valuable job skills to the homeless it employs and sells product both wholesale (with outlets like Michael’s Genuine® Food & Drink and Coconut Grove’s Glaser Farms Saturday Market) and direct to consumer through its uniquely single farm CSA program. They grow microgreens, sunflower and pea shoots in their state-of-the-art greenhouse, tender baby greens such as kale, arugula, and a variety of lettuces in raised garden beds in the shade-house, and in the fields, tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, and a variety of eggplants including Chef Michael’s favorite — Sicilian.
“My whole season is on paper in July,” Lyon continues. “Cucumbers and squash go in first week of September. We get a second planting of those, with 55 days to fruit. To come up with the mix, I think more about what my end customer is going to want and be able to cook with from their farm share. It’s like I’m planning their menus at home. We do 100 total different crops, a quarter specifically for wholesale but 75 are for the CSA. Very proud of that. It’s a very important part of the business, and we want to grow it.”
Verde’s CSA is distributed through the Urban Oasis Project‘s network including Upper East Side (6599 Biscayne Blvd, Saturdays 9am-2pm,) Adrienne Arsht Center (1300 Biscayne Blvd., Mondays 4-8pm), and of course at its own location a block or so from the farm (12690 SW 280th Street, Tuesday-Saturday 10-3PM,) which is run by Bill Squire. They accept SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and double their value up to $20 when spent on Florida fruits and vegetables. This is made possible through Fresh Access Bucks provided by our partners at Florida Organic Growers. You can sign up here on the CSA page of its website, where you can also donate to the farm program.
“I’m really pleased with where we are now, but we’ve definitely hit a ceiling,” Lyons reflects. “Currently we’re operating without electricity. We need cooler space and packing house to really ramp up production, like I know we are capable of.”