Farming in the Burbs
Written by Ashton Goggans
Edible Sarasota - Fall 2012.
If you ever have the pleasure to talk with Bill Pischer, owner of North Sarasota’s Jessica’s Organic Farm, you’ll certainly find yourself on the receiving end of some serious opinions. But they aren’t unfounded, and if you listen long enough, well, you’ll find that the man has some points.
Since 1980, Bill has ran one of Sarasota’s best-kept organic utopias, a five-acre farm tucked in north county, south of Desoto Rd. One of Florida’s first fully organic farms, they started off small.
“I liked growing things,” Bill says, plainly. “And I thought it would be nice to grow food for the neighborhood.”
He started off growing mainly strawberries, running a U-pick operation, and packing crates for the Granary, when it was still on Main Street, in Sarasota. In the mid- ’80s they changed over to vegetable varieties. “We planted kale, spinach, lettuces, collards, arugula, some beets,” Bill says. Shortly after, they opened their weekly farmer’s market onsite. They began a small dairy, selling Amishraised, grass-fed, free range eggs. Bill took the opportunity and named the farm after his daughter.
“People would show up to the farm wanting stuff, and we’d have to walk all the way over to the other side of the farm to grab it for them,” Bill says. “It just became inefficient. So we figured we’d make it available on Saturday mornings to everyone.”
In the past two decades, Jessica’s has built a cult-like following with locals seeking out the freshest seasonal produce around. And part of this is because when it comes to food quality standards, Bill is a no-nonsense type of guy, literally. “People come to me and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t eat GMO grains, we don’t eat animal products, etc.’” Bill says. “But they don’t realize that 95 percent of the compost used for agricultural purposes comes from waste from [standard] slaughterhouses, and we’re talking fish scraps, pork, beef, poultry waste. And the only difference for organic produce, is that the compost has to reach 170 degrees for six days.”
A lot of what he says seems sort of off-the-cuff, and as you’d imagine there is very little research out there to back up his claims (try to get a handle on the Department of Agriculture’s standards for organic compost, and you’ll see what I mean). But one thing he seems to believe, when it comes to the Sarasota area’s focus on capital “G” Growth, and the housing market, etc. does have teeth to it, and it isn’t the nicest news to hear.
“The prospect of Sarasota becoming a local agrarian area is about zero,” Bill says. “There’s no culture to embrace it, mainly because land values are dictated by the developers and the banks, and the County. They’ve always had the upper hand, and they have for the last century. People need to realize that the land-use strategy in Sarasota revolves around real estate values, it revolves around housing and sales, and this isn’t anything new. This has been the trend for the last 80 or so years. And because of that, people are fine with food coming from outside. The property values are too high; people wouldn’t be able to get themselves involved in [farming.] The numbers don’t add up. Growing small scale means you don’t have the mechanized efficiency that large farms have; you don’t have what is basically slave labor. We’re just a small farm. We have our market on site. We try to pay a good living wage. And our labor force, some of them have been with us 10, 12 years.”
And though Bill’s attitude might be a little doom-and-gloom, the fact that he has continued to harvest, season after season, not letting produce politics get in his way, well, it speaks bushels. The farm shuts down in late June, until September. But for the rest of the year, they have the market open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, selling everything from pea and sunflower sprouts, to fresh herbs such as cress, dill, parsley, and cilantro. You can find a dozen varieties of peppers, heirloom tomatoes, wheatgrass, endives, escarole, and dandelions. There’s local cow milk, as well as Amish-raised goat and cow milk cheeses— mozzarellas, cheddars, Jacks, goat goudas, and kefirs—and a selection of dried fruits, dry beans, nuts, and local honeys. For a lot of people, it’s a three-season one-stop shop.