The year 2019 has brought about changes in our personal lives as well as our business. That said, we have a habit of revisiting and analyzing all of the aspects of our operation every summer and we usually make substantial changes from year to year. Summer for us is the off season thus it's more relaxed and we have time to think! We like to reflect on everything from numbers and data to work flow, life balance and how we can be not only more successful but also happier individuals moving forward. It's no surprise to us that this summer brings change, but the scope of the change this time is a bit more complicated to explain. It involves some social issues and it is stirring up all kinds of emotions for us and the people around us.
One of the things we've been questioning the most the past couple of years is land ownership. We've been operating on leased land since the beginning and we are endlessly grateful for the landowners that have hosted our little urban farm(s) over the years, but it's hard to ignore the fact that not owning our farmland comes with many problems. We are not only speaking about ourselves as Little River Cooperative, but also on behalf of French Farms who has been a close collaborator the past few years. Both of our small businesses have existed on leased land and after being in the grind this long we’ve come to the conclusion that eventually a farmer needs some kind land security in order to take their farm to the next level. You all know that the profit margins in farming are very small. One way that creative small farmers get around that is to focus on self sustainability and efficiency. Both of those things become increasingly difficult when a farmer doesn’t own their land or at lease have a secure long term lease (10-15 years or more). First of all, having to move a farm is almost like starting over from scratch and that is something French Farms has had to do twice over the past few years. We’ve moved our nursery twice also. Not only have we moved, but we’ve always operated on multiple pieces of land scattered throughout the city; something that certainly has it’s benefits but becomes a serious issue when it comes to efficiency. Both French Farms and our Little River Cooperative team have been considering buying land to finally make our South Florida farming dreams come true, but land in South Florida (especially land within the city limits or anywhere near the city) is no longer priced for farming, it is priced for development. South Floridas agriculturally zoned neighborhoods are Homestead & The Redlands, which are both located south of Miami at the very southern tip of Florida. The City of Miami grows by about 700 residents every day and its urban growth is inhibited by two natural barriers: The Atlantic Ocean to the east and The Everglades to the west, so when developers are looking for growth opportunities they only have a specific amount of land to work with. Every year we lose more and more farmland to housing and because of this trend the price for agricultural land in Homestead & The Redlands has skyrocketed to a price beyond what a landowner can afford for a business that grows vegetables. One acre of agricultural land in Homestead can sell for anywhere from $60,000 to $150,000 depending on how far it is from the city and how it is zoned (or how easily it can be rezoned). The average value of agricultural land per acre in the rest of Florida (2015 study) is $5,400 and the national average is $3,020... one reason why rural farms can make the numbers work is that their farmland is affordable, its part of the natural way that cities and farms have shaped themselves since we humans started farming (farms on the outskirts of cities) however because our city really doesn't have "outskirts" anymore, there isn't really much room left for financially viable farming.
Besides the issue of land security, theres a number of other things we have to consider when looking at the viability of the farming aspect of our business, from commuting to cost of living, climate change, the pricing of produce and responsible land stewardship. As a result of these issue we’ve both (Little River Coop & French Farms) decided to take a step back from farming at least for a year. Taking a year off from farming also means we will not be doing our CSA this season. We imagine this will come as a shock to many of you and we totally get it. We feel that running a CSA based entirely on produce bought from other farms defeats the purpose of a CSA and it isn't something we are interested in doing. Growing the food for our CSA ourselves is very important to us so that we can assure the quality we advertise. We have developed a sweet relationship with French Farms who was growing the majority of the produce for our CSA the last few seasons. Our close relationship with his farm was the reason we grew our CSA to be as large as it was, and without being able to rely on his incredibly fresh and high quality produce we don't feel that we can source enough organic locally grown produce on a weekly basis to sustain a CSA. Farmer Chris of French Farms told us to refer to his farm as "under construction" and "closed for renovation" which we think is a smart way to think of our farming project too.
So, what does this mean for Little River Coop, and what does it mean for you, our community members? Just because we aren’t farming on a large scale this year doesn’t mean we wont be a major part of our plant community. Over the past two years our nursery in Allapattah has become an amazing urban oasis of edible plants and we plan to make it even more productive and more interactive this year. The greenhouse at the nursery will continue to be stocked with a crazy selection of starts for your gardens. We make everything from leafy greens, to herbs, edible flowers, medicinal plants, over a dozen varieties of lettuces that do best in our climate, over 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers and other fruiting vegetable plants. We also stock fruit trees, native plants, butterfly plants and house plants. Last season we had 5 seasonal plant sales throughout the growing season, each one with a selection that reflects the shifting season and we plan to continue making our plant sales even better than before. Last season we also hosted almost 2 dozen educational workshops and we’re super excited to add even more next season. The large demonstration garden at the nursery is an urban gem for people in Miami and we will continue to use it to produce edible flowers, culinary herbs and specialty greens for sale to the public either on site or at the market. Yes, we will still be participating in the Legion Park Farmers Market every Saturday through the growing season. Our offerings will change and there won't be as many veggies for sale but we are hoping to partner with some other small farms and businesses to make the booth as diverse and inspiring as possible.
In the meantime, we hope that those who are committed to buying local food will continue to visit the Legion Park Farmers Market where they can buy local and organic produce from the Urban Oasis Projects booth every Saturday year round. There are also some remaining small scale organic farms throughout Dade County and we encourage you all to go out of your way to support them by joining their CSA programs or visiting their booths at various farmers markets. We also ask that our community trusts that we made this decision after lots (and lots) of consideration and careful planning, so trust that this is the best decision for us farmers and our families and businesses.
Muriel, Tiffany & Chris
In preparation for writing this we did some research about the land changes in Homestead & The Redlands and we found this (mildly outdated) article which sums up some of the issues and moving parts involved quite well. We recommend you give it a read for a view into the farmers struggle in Dade County.