gardens, Florida Catholic

Paola Amezquita, who heads the agroecology project for the Florida Assocation of Farmworkers, teaches Marquel English, Cornelius Stanley and Markel Ashley about what plants are ripe to pick as volunteer Sarah Downs observes (PHOTOS BY DAVID GONZALEZ | FC)

Long Sleeve Relief Campaign: Gardens offer equality through healthy food

APOPKA  |  Standing amid a few dozen different plants flowering with fruits and vegetables, Lenora Brinson couldn’t help plucking a ripe tomato from the vine and eating it on the spot.

“I love it. It’s so fresh,” said the Orlando resident who comes to the Campesinos’ Garden in Apopka on a Sunday afternoon. “I enjoy this so much because we all work together. To see something grow and then be able to enjoy it, it lifts spirits. It’s so healthy and we are doing it with our own hands.”

Campesinos’ Garden is a project of the Farmworker Association of Florida where community members tend to a piece of land to plant vegetables, herbs and fruits from seeds and seedlings and weed the landscape. Then members can harvest the bounty and take it home to eat. The Apopka garden, which started two years ago, grows on a stretch of land on the grounds of the Hope CommUnity Center. On display are stalks of corn, ripened tomatoes on the vine, bushes of different herbs like basil and mint, dark purple elderberries blooms, heavy leaves of cabbage, kale and different varieties of lettuce and edible flowers.

“Wasting food is never a problem,” said Ivan Vazquez, community organizer for the Farmworker Association in Apopka. “Whatever grows here, the community members take the crop. They come from all over the place — Eustis, Orlando, Zellwood. If anything, they want to grow more.”

On one weekend, Vazquez and other harvesters took over the kitchen at Hope CommUnity Center to make elderberry jelly. Another time the freshly picked jalapenos, tomatoes and cilantro were converted to salsa. One of things they hope to do is have a way to dry herbs.

“Many times, these members have no access to healthy food that is affordable, and they don’t have land or property of their own to grow their own food,” Vazquez said. “The whole purpose of the garden is to have the community to grow healthy foods without pesticides.”

Paola Amezquita, who heads the agroecology project, explained how the garden employs systems that allow it to be self-sustainable and environmentally safe from pesticides through compost systems, barrels for rain water, and canals that allow the soil to retain water longer and better. While there is a compost that turns food scraps into plant-based soil, Amezquita added there is also a worm compost, which immediately stopped all other conversation for an explanation.

Working with Our Vital Earth, the association learned how to grow and feed worms, and then collect the urine (a natural pesticide) and excrement (a natural fertilizer). So, who does the collection?
“I do. I think it’s fun,” Paola said with a laugh. “The key to the garden is not just to produce food, but to teach community members good practices versus the industrial agriculture complex. This is a way to show farmworkers there is an alternative way to develop healthy food for themselves.”

Jeannie Economos, pesticide safety and environmental health project coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, agreed that Campesinos’ Garden is more than a garden. Those who come to harvest are farmworkers and families who grew up as farmworkers, along with members who do not have a direct connection to the agriculture industry. Members bring their own cultural knowledge and share it with one another with the common goal of learning how to develop food sources “while being in harmony with nature,” she said.

“There is a big aspect of social justice with the gardens,” Economos added. “Low income families don’t have access to healthy living because it can be too expensive. And farmworkers are exposed to pesticides every day. These gardens offer equality because they give them access to land to raise their own healthy food.”

It is access to land that can be tricky. Along with Apopka, the association has gardens in Fellsmere, Pierson and Homestead. Economos added that the association in Immokalee is interested in a garden, as well. While the Apopka garden uses land from a sister project of the association, the other gardens utilize plots leased from local government. Grants help fund leases, insurance, permits and irrigation, but financial donations are always welcome, and it would be a big leg up if each garden grew on a piece of land owned by the association.

“We are always looking for ways to access land, so these gardens can continue to grow,” Amezquita said.

But for now, association staff and members enjoy the bounty from the land available. Thanks to a two-year effort of an Eagle Scout project, the Apopka garden has a new greenhouse on the grounds, which for now is empty but might be used to start citrus seedlings before planting them on the grounds.

On a recent Sunday, Linda Lee, a longtime association member, brought a brood of six children, who included grandkids and children of her nephew. The kids, ranging from ages 7 to 10, followed Amezquita around flitting from plant to plant asking, “What is this?” and “Can I eat it?” and “What does it taste like?”

Lee watched them with a soft smile on her face. The daughter of a farmworker, she recalled the garden her father tended on their home property when she was growing up around the corner on 15th Street in Apopka. She remembers the beans, peas, okra, tomatoes and even watermelon that grew on her property. 

“We had geese, pigs, chickens, ducks galore,” Lee recalled. “I remember my father made a loft just for pigeons. I don’t know how he did it, but he got pigeons to roost there. He’d collect the droppings for fertilizer. He was a creative man. I miss my dad. I think about him all the time.”

But the home farm became a thing of the past when the county took some property. 

“This means a lot to me because (the kids) didn’t have a chance to see the farm back in the day,” Lee said. “This is hands-on stuff they can’t get elsewhere. They learn how stuff grows and the time it takes for it to grow.”

Just as she said that, one of her grandsons came out to her with a dish full of ripe tomatoes. Some the size of his fist, the others grape tomatoes.

“Look how much I found,” he said.

“You mean how much you picked,” Lee corrected. “And it’s beautiful. You did a beautiful job.”