Farm Aid funded group Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers (FOG) works to educate consumers, farmers, future farmers, businesses and policy makers about organic and sustainable agriculture. They also act as an organic certifier. FOG staff introduced us to farmer Andres Mejides to talk about the importance of crop diversity, particularly in a climate like south Florida.
Tell us about your farm. How did you get started? What to do you grow or raise?
We bought the farm in 1993, right after hurricane Andrew. We liked this place because it was so diverse. The owners were tropical fruit enthusiasts, so there was quite a variety of species and cultivars. From the moment we entered into negotiations, [the owners] asked me to approve anything done on the farm so as to aid the transition to organic. That was pretty easy: I said “Mow and water”, nothing else. My wife, Cynthia, and I kept our off-farm jobs for a few years while we transitioned. We “farmed” on the weekends and evenings. During the day, my sister, Yvonne, worked the farm with the help of our parents. As I said, the farm was well already planted with lots of tropical fruit. We put in many raised beds, ranging from under 10 sq. ft. to 1,500 sq. ft. where we grow row crops, herbs, and edible flowers. We also have more than a dozen shade houses dedicated to micro-green production year-round. We have more than 100 different crops that we grow, all certified organic, of course. The farm is only five acres but it never ceases to impress visitors with the variety of crops that we grow.
Do you grow any heirloom or specialty varieties at Elfin Acres? Is crop diversity an important part of your farm?
Well, that’s tricky! To me, something has to be at least 100 years old to qualify as an heirloom Miami, north of us, wasn’t even incorporated until 1895! Commercial farming started down here about the same time, so we really haven’t had much time to develop heirlooms. Imagine how the ones developed for the rest of the US do [in the Florida weather]! However, there are a few things that we grow that qualify. We have a plant that is a winter annual here (we have plants that are dormant in summer and grow only in winter!) that is originally from Nigeria. It’s called Florida Spinach and is consumed like spinach. We also have a variety of Lima bean from the Caribbean that is a perennial. The vines, several years old now, survived a 28-degree wind-chill this January but they can handle 90-degree heat any month of the year. They keep going & going – never stop producing! One of the few Southern heirlooms that we grow are Georgia Collards. They tend to grow anywhere from 5 to 10 years before they finally give it up, which makes for a fun rotation! One of the few traditional heirlooms that most of your readers will know are the “Brandywine” tomatoes. Just like in the rest of the country, Brandywines need a lot of coddling and aren’t super-productive but my wife tasted them and I’ve had to grow them every year since! I’ve been working on improving the strain for our conditions and every year is better. They seem to be adapting to the heat and humidity, while retaining their Pennsylvania cold-hardiness! I think they are a bit more productive too, but that may be the proud papa talking. As far as having a diverse farm, I think very few in the US would rival us. Carrots between rows of avocado, raspberries by the mangos, white sapote, black sapote, and mamey sapote by the peach, etc.
Can you describe an average day on the farm?
Commute to work: Open the door; step out; and I’m there! First, I turn on the shadehouse irrigation and the farm irrigation. Simultaneously, I feed the outdoor tropical fish that we raise. Then, hike to unlock the front gate for the employees. (My 3 assistants go with me: boy dog, girl dog, boy cat.) Come back and feed the tropical birds that we raise. Then, the cats and dogs. Check and gather seeds for that day’s planting. Go over daily tasks with employees. Scout farm for problems. Plant seeds, prepare flats, transplant, that kind of stuff. Afternoons are for hoeing, mowing, and weeding. In between, research: internet and books, magazines, plant catalogs. Answer e-mails, check in at school electronically to see if anything new is on the horizon. Also use this time to prepare for [my] next lecture, tv show, etc. to promote organic gardening and farming in English and Spanish.
Do you wear overalls? Seriously, our readers want to know.
Overalls?!? South of Miami? Christmas day could just as likely be 85 as 65! Sandals, shorts and tee-shirts 99% of the time, long pants and shoes when using mechanical equipment.
When did you know that you wanted to be a farmer?
I started [gardening] when I was 4! My mom had to do something to keep me out of her hair when my sister started school. She taught me how to grow things from seed, and to mix edibles with ornamentals.My dad built me two raised beds, about 100’ long, a foot wide. These went from the sidewalk to our front door. I grew roses, shrimp plants, four-o-clocks, beans, onions, carrots– all kinds of things together. My Uncle Ralph had a small farm on what was then the outskirts of Miami (now it’s the middle of Hialeah!). It was your typical small US family farm, but in south Florida: row crops, chickens, a cow for milk, goats. Unfortunately, he passed away before I had a chance to know him well. He did plant the seed for me wanting to be a farmer.
Tell us some things that farmers need to know, that we might not think of.
Boy, that’s a good one! One of the reasons I like this profession is because I’m interested in everything! Farmers have to be botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, mechanics, economists, and more! This is probably the most all-encompassing job on the planet!
Why do you think family farmers are important?
I think small farmers are important for so many reasons: our diversity, our commitment to our land and community. We don’t think of our land as something to wear out and then move somewhere else and destroy that land too. We care for our soil and improve it. We talk to our neighbors, we see them every day and we all work together. It’s a sense of community that cannot be found in agri-business. On top of that, look how much small farming helps in the fight against global warming!
What is your favorite chore?
Hand weeding! (I swear!) Not when I’m doing a 1,500 sq. ft. with a hoe, but actual HAND weeding a small bed less than 10 sq. ft. You get to see so many things that you would otherwise miss. The native flora and fauna, volunteers of something that grew there years ago, 5” long millipedes, gecko eggs under the leaf litter – the intimacy of a small plot cannot be underestimated.