From academia to agriculture— Worden Farm: driven by personal passion

• They’re organic farmers, which in itself, interests many people these days. But, there’s more to the Wordens than production techniques. One reason they went organic, Eva says, is to show it could be done in Florida. • “Many people say you can’t do organic in Florida. “There are no hard freezes and too many pest challenges, they say. Well, take a look around this farm. If we can do it here, it can be done in many other places. Every environment has its challenges, and so does Florida. Growing organic best fits with our personal ecological ethic. That’s our reasoning.”

Walking aroundthe intensely-worked 40 acres she and her husband, Chris, farm near Punta Gorda, Fla., Eva Worden points out the hundreds of vegetable cultivars they grow, then reflects a bit on her own rather unusual journey to this place.

She grew up in the heart of the big city, Coral Gables, daughter of a medical doctor and an academic administrator in public health who valued education, then got her own Ph.D. from Yale University.

Now, here she is, in her family’s eighth year of farming, concerned day-by-day with soil fertility, seed germination and displays of their produce in farmers markets.

“If this farm had already existed, we would not have created it,” she says. “I view what we’re doing here as part of a larger purpose. If society does not value and understand agriculture, we will not have it in our communities — and I don’t want to live in a community that doesn’t have the potential to feed me, or for me to feed myself.”

Seeing agriculture as vital to how society views itself, the Wordens, in a fairly short period of time, have put their farm front-and-center in their area.

If a freeze or drought threatens, television reporters find their way to the Worden Farm. When the local Lions or Rotary clubs want someone to speak about food, chances are good that Eva will be standing at the podium.

“We try our best to communicate,” she says. “It’s for the benefit of our own farm, and also for agriculture in general and for society.”

They’re organic farmers, which in itself, interests many people these days. But, there’s more to the Wordens than production techniques. One reason they went organic, Eva says, is to show it could be done in Florida.

“Many people say you can’t do organic in Florida,” she says. “There are no hard freezes and too many pest challenges, they say. Well, take a look around this farm. If we can do it here, it can be done in many other places. Every environment has its challenges, and so does Florida. Growing organic best fits with our personal ecological ethic. That’s our reasoning.”

Eva’s doctoral dissertation investigated early efforts at Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Today, she lives it, with three fine-tuned CSA programs on her own farm.

They offer classic box delivery, in which they take boxes of vegetables, greens, root crops, herbs and fruit to be picked up by members at different locations in the area. Their on-farm market-style membership lets people choose which crops they want on designated days at the farm. A farmers market credit program is a prepaid buying program, available at farmers markets fall through spring.

They offer only a limited pick-your-own opportunity restricted to a couple of plots that tend to have things that are a bit unusual and simple to harvest, like edible flowers.

In addition, their products are sold at weekly farmers markets in downtown Sarasota, downtown St. Petersburg, north Naples, and at Fishermen’s Village on the waterfront in Punta Gorda.

Chris, who grew up in Maryland, earned a Ph.D. in plant science from the University of Connecticut. His dissertation was on using food-processing compost for crop production. Put his education together with Eva’s and that’s a pretty good background for their current efforts.

Crop rotation critical

“We originally had a scheme for doing about 15 acres, and figured the extra land we had would give us room to rotate ground,” he says. “We do concentrate on rotating crops. We have about 40 acres, but get multiple crops off each acre. On some, we do three to five plantings a year; on other ground, only one.”

They grow tomatoes, eggplants,strawberries and peppers — longer-term crops —on plastic ground cover. The rest of the farm is planted on bare beds. Timing planting is doubly important, considering many of their customers are winter-only residents in the area.

“Our peak is January through March, when the ‘snowbirds’ are here,” Chris says. “We try to be at maximum production during that period. We start harvesting some crops as early as October, which means we’re planting all the way back to June 1.

“In all our fields we have the capacity to switch pretty fast from plastic to open beds. We also put two pipes in the ground for irrigation, and can do either drip or overhead watering.”

The farm’s irrigation system was carefully designed from the start and relies on ponds for the water supply.

“We worked with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency and with the Florida Department of Agriculture, who helped design it, and both helped with cost-share,” Chris says.

“We focus on efficient use of water — 70 percent of the farm is on drip. This is sand, and poorly drained; there’s a spodic layer, a hard layer, 30 inches deep in the soil. Beds are really necessary for farming here, and plastic mulch is needed for strawberries.

We could flood irrigate these fields well. Overhead is 50 percent more efficient than flooding, though. Drip is 50 percent to 60 percent more efficient than overhead.

“We have several wells to recharge the ponds, but they generally don’t need recharging. It’s a 30-foot depth to water here, and there are artesian wells on the property. All this ground has been farmed, historically. It has been in woods and it has been logged; it has been in pasture and it’s had watermelons on it. When we bought it, it was pretty rundown — it looked sort of abandoned.”

Fertility brought it to life.Muchof their nutritional program involves composted chicken litter, sterilized by heat treatment.

“It helps with micronutrients, as well as providing some organic matter,” Chris says. “It gives a residual, slow release of nutrients.”

For pest problems, they use compounds approved for organic use. For insects, that’s likely to be Dipel. A bio-fungicide, Serenade, helps with diseases. “The effectiveness of these chemicals is not an immediate fix,” Chris says.

“A preventive approach is best. That’s why creating a habitat for beneficial insects is important for us. The beneficials will live in the weeds or on some of the trees in our field borders.”

The Wordens voice no antagonism toward conventional growers who use pesticides. “Conventional is not for me,” Chris says, “but I don’t feel threatened by them. I can learn a lot from them about how to do things like throw up beds, lay out a field and cultivate. I often like to see how they manage their fields.

“We use some of the same chemicals they do. It would be nice if their programs were all based on an environmentally sound arsenal. I think a lot of them do make an effort to do that.”

The Wordens feel kinshipwith just about every farmer.

Plenty of risk involved

“Ag is such a hard industry,” Chris says. “There’s a lot of risk. In a very real sense, we’re all in this thing together.”

He and Eva met during a biostatistics class at the University of Maryland graduate school. Both were interested in composting. She began doing field research, and he helped her. Their shared interests led to a deeper relationship, and they married.

“She made a really interesting project out of studying CSAs, and looking up ecosystem approaches being utilized to study environmental issues,” Chris says. “That gave her a perspective that was a very unique way to approach the topic area she chose. That got crafted into a study of things like land tenure and social issues, which is really why she went to Yale instead of a school like Cornell, where the emphasis would have been different.”

After graduation, Eva took a job with the University of Florida as an urban landscape horticulture specialist in South Florida. She did some teaching, along with Extension work in community gardens. Meanwhile, she and Chris began farming on leased land at Homestead, where Eva’s parents own an avocado grove.

“Land there is farmed intensively,” Chris says. “Everything is used — there’s no open space. By that, I mean something is on all sides; the urban fringe is taking a toll on the ag sector out there. You’re basically in a big city. It’s tropical. I kind of liked it. We could grow starfruit and mangoes there.

“But it was intense. With it being an urban area, there were a number of issues going on. So, we were looking to rotate either to the northeast or farther north in Florida. This land we’re on now became available through a friend of Eva’s family.”

When the first of their sons was born, they felt it was time to move — which they did, even though the place looked unimpressive.

“The front was 20 acres of horse pasture,” Eva says. “The back was 35 acres of standing dead citrus trees on sour orange stock that had succumbed to tristeza virus. There were no buildings on it. We built a barn, and within weeks, Hurricane Charley hit and ripped the roof off.”

For a few minutes, anyway,the young couple pondered whether they were doing the right thing. Then they got to work.

“I guess you could say we were undaunted,” Eva says. “We put the roof back on and kept going. We built the house here, too. We were driven by personal passion to develop this farm in a short time.”

After that shaky start, the pieces fell into place. Selling their produce at one farmers market led to another, and another after that. Hauling with one old flatbed pickup truck with a trailer gave way to the several reefer trucks they use today. Doing all the work themselves evolved to the crew of 50 or so full- and part-timers they employ now. Their food surplus is donated to area soup kitchens for the needy.

Even they are fairly amazed at what occurred in eight years.

“When we moved here, we didn’t know anybody,” Eva says. “This farm is like our entire lives. We do spend a lot of time out in the community talking to people about different things. It’s not like we’re pushing services people don’t want — people find what we do interesting.

“Everybody eats. Most people we’re associated with are trying to eat quality food. Our farm’s reputation has grown through word of mouth, from our mouths outward to others. We’ve never placed advertising — not that we’re against advertising; we just have no budget for it.”

They hope that along the way, they’ve somehow helped agriculture as a whole.

“Agriculture has quite a story to tell,” Eva says. “The thing is, people are interested in it. If you eat, you should be interested in farming. Potentially, we also may have influenced others toward this type of farming, which we recognize is not for everyone. But, it can be fulfilling for many people”

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