Published: September 20, 2011
Updated: March 20, 2013 at 11:23 PM
During a sweltering morning recently, Ben King stood with a sweat-soaked shirt under the shade of what once was a horse barn when it was built in 1965. From the fall to late spring, it now serves as the King Family Market outdoor farm stand.Standing in front of a group of 18 chefs visiting his farm that day, King explained his organic approach to growing. They make their own compost mulch. Drip-tape irrigation nourishes crops instead of wasteful surface watering. Bee hives produce honey from plants pollinated on the 50-acre farm. Other than the Florida peach trees, which get a crucial application of fungicide once a year as a preventative measure, no other fruits or vegetables are chemically treated."We try to do it the right way," King said. "We try to pick everything when it's just ripe."It's one thing to be a chef who espouses the virtues of buying and cooking locally grown food that has been cultivated using the best possible farming practices. It's another to see firsthand where those ingredients come from.Closing the gap between chefs and farmers was the idea John Matthews had when he organized a tour this month for staff from restaurants his Suncoast Food Alliance supplies in Tampa, Bradenton and Sarasota."I think it's important for you all to see the amount of distance we cover out here and how far we have to go and what farmers deal with to get you their products" Matthews said.Matthews started Suncoast Food Alliance three years ago after working in Sarasota County with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Seeing a distribution gap between growers and the hospitality industry, he modeled the business on farm-to-restaurant operations he had seen in California, Michigan and North Carolina.He now works with 22 restaurants, from Land O' Lakes to Venice. They are supplied by 16 farms from Manatee, Sarasota and Hillsborough counties.For the all-day farm tour, Matthews scheduled visits for his clients to five growers in Bradenton and Myakka City: King's, Bob's Veggie Patch, Mitchell's Natural Produce, Watercress Farms and Hunsader Farms.Starting at King's, Matthews handed the group thick catalogs from the Johnny's Selected Seeds and High Mowing Organic Seeds. The message: Whatever you want, these farmers likely can grow to order."We can do requests," King said. "We can't do asparagus, though. It's not cold enough."Loading the group on a trailer stacked with hay bales, King drove the chefs through his fields, showing off the farm's growing regions. Next to a tall row of corn, he explained how he and his workers spray the stalks with olive oil and water to prevent insects from laying harmful eggs.During one stop, a chef from New Jersey asked where the hay they were sitting on comes from, saying his daughter had asked the same question. King explained that hay is a mixture of tall grass and herbs that is cut, dried and stored for animal consumption.The chef appeared sheepish at the simple answer. That's not the worst question he's answered, though, King told him.Not long ago during a school tour, a student noticed a nearby pond. King explained that it was stocked with tilapia and that the fish are occasionally harvested."Is that where fish come from?" the student said.Not all fish, King replied."No," the student told him. "I didn't know fish came from water."Several chefs in the group gasped, then shook their heads in disbelief at the disconnection."It's important for people to visit and see where their food comes from," Matthews said.The vibe is vastly different at Bob's Veggie Patch. On an intimate two-acre lot, farmer Bob Lyons grows hydroponic crops as well as in-ground vegetation in four greenhouses behind his home.Using synthetic fertilizer and organic products above ground, Lyons produces a myriad of crops in what looks like plastic condominiums of 400 stacked flower pots mounted on flag poles.Lyons began farming in 2004 after retiring and now produces 20 varieties of squash, black-eyed peas, okra, seedless cucumbers and zucchini crops as well as several varieties of lettuce.A hive in the back of the property, located 11 miles east of Interstate 75 on State Road 64, is home for bees that pollinate the plants. In the fall, he uses lady bugs and lace wings to control invasive insects. Like King Farm, Lyons operates a market starting in October to sell what his farm produces, as well as locally made milk.As the chefs gathered in the shade, Lyons brought out a basket of refrigerated squash and zucchini grown at the farm. Borrowing a knife from one of the chefs, he sliced raw segments and handed them out as treats. Smaller in size than grocery store equivalents, the flavor difference was tremendous."There's no comparison," one chef said between bites. "No comparison."StarlineThere's been a slight change of plans, Matthews told the group after it got on the bus to leave Bob's Veggie Patch. Hunsader's and Mitchell's were swamped with water during a recent rainstorm. They're too busy salvaging crops in their flooded fields to give a tour. The news is a sign of how brittle the supply chain can be from independent farms."They must have had more rain than we got in town," Matthews said. "That's how it goes out here."Instead, the group stopped at Watercress Farms, a 450-acre operation that grows baby leaf salad and watercress for grocery distribution in Europe. Though the sandy Florida soils are poor in nutrients, Myakka City provides the perfect climate for growing watercress, farm vice president Guy Averill told the group.The company packs the lettuce and cools it to 2 degrees above freezing before shipping it refrigerated on Virgin Atlantic Airways with the goal of having it on store shelves within 48 hours of harvest. Watercress is the airline's second-largest shipper by volume.The farm recently began distributing in West Florida through Suncoast Food Alliance as a way of providing the lettuce to local restaurants that might not otherwise have access to such quantities.Some of the chefs peppered Averill with questions that sounded skeptical about how a large commercial operation could follow organic practices. He assured them that they're mindful of the environmental aspects of farming – practices such as rotating crops, keeping the soil enriched with wild-growing "Myakka hemp" weeds and keeping 50 acres of the property as a nature reserve."We have to grow according to European Union standards, which are more strict than American requirements," he said. "We have fun meeting both of those standards."After the tour, Eddie Shumard, a cook and pastry chef at The Refinery in Tampa, said it was eye-opening to see the scale of operations of the farms that have supplied the restaurant for the past year and a half. Refinery co-owner Greg Baker joined him for the tour."You couldn't have gotten more of a cross-section of American farming," Shumard said.Shumard and Robin Milcowitz, who directed the Seminole Heights Garden in Tampa, have been working to build the Tampa Urban Food Forum, which encourages residents to grow their own food.Shumard said farmers complain that consumers don't understand where their food comes from. He and Milcowitz promoted several events locally in the past year showing films that expose harmful commercial agricultural practices. Public awareness is slowly turning, he said."The thought that a bean grows on a vine will blow a 40-year-old's mind as much as it does a 12-year-old's mind," Shumard said. "It wasn't until two years ago that I realized Brussels sprouts came off this weird stalk.Chef Gary Moran, who plans to open Knife & Co. restaurant, on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, within the next month, came away impressed by King and the way the farm operates.Americans "have to start taking [sustainable farming] seriously," Moran said. "Chefs, for better or worse, are social leaders. We have to be more responsible using sustainable products."In a blog post he wrote after the tour, Moran said he is proud that his soon-to-be Southern-themed restaurant will work with the farmers he met."To take what they have handed me, and use it to craft honest, nourishing food is an honor," he wrote. "Sometimes we need to be reminded that the most important duty we have in our lives is to serve our fellow man. And sometimes it can be as simple, and as literal as serving a good meal, but there is nobility in it."