When tensions ripen: The challenges of urban farming

12/01/2005 02:00:00 AM

By Misty Huber

Few understand the effects of urbanization better than strawberry growers as more subdivisions push into what was formerly agricultural land.

The 7,000 acres of farmland surrounding Plant City produce 60 percent to 70 percent of the United States’ winter strawberries, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. The city, located in Hillsborough County, lies just 24 miles east of Tampa.

Strawberries do better than other types of agriculture in urban surroundings because the product doesn’t move or cause manure, said Chip Hinton, executive director of the association. Still, anytime you mix rural and urban dwellers, complications inevitably arise.

 

Rural myths

The greatest struggle to strawberry growers is the type of personality that is attracted to a quasi-rural life, Hinton said. They don’t have a vision of agriculture as a business in reference to open space.

People move into rural areas with impressions of what it should be like. But, slow-moving vehicles, dust and flies don’t fit into that perception, Hinton said, so they seek protection from what they came to the rural surroundings to enjoy.

Cultural differences also can cause problems. The workers are virtually all Mexican, and stereotypes evoke concerns about security and property values, Hinton said. However, he doesn’t attribute it to simple racial bias.

“It’s hard to separate the cultural biases that we all have,” Hinton said. “It’s as much a fear of change or of the unknown as anything.”

A lot of complaints come from those seeking the peace and quiet who are surprised of how noisy the country can be, said Alicia Whidden, Hillsborough County extension agent for the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Robins get in the berries and workers must make a lot of noise to get rid of the birds and avoid losing thousands of dollars each day, she said. Unfortunately, it’s a constant process, from sun-up to sun-down every day, using air cannons or banging pipes to keep the robins from returning.

Carl Grooms, owner of Fancy Farms in Plant City, has firsthand experience about how the image contrasts the reality of rural life. Although development is just now beginning to creep into his area, he has already experienced a minor issue.

“I had a fellow who said the dust blowing off my fields was causing him respiratory problems,” Grooms said.

The soil was blowing from a new field and Grooms explained to his neighbor that it would lessen as soon as he installed the irrigation. However, with the irrigation comes the noise from the pump, which seems to perpetuate a never-ending cycle of complaints.

Another difficulty is that new neighbors think the farmers are getting wealthy, Grooms said. They see all of the land, workers and water use and don’t understand it’s costing the farmer money.

The day after Hurricane Wilma brought six inches of water, Fancy Farms irrigated its 150 acres of strawberries, a process that brought puzzled looks from passersby who assumed he was wasting water, he said. They didn’t understand that the plants needed the water to keep them cool because they hadn’t been in the ground long enough.

 

Sharing the bounty

Farmers can try to minimize the impact on the community, suggested Hinton. If possible, work in the fields when there is little wind or when it’s heading away from developed areas.

“We’ll try to work around weather and minimize impact while doing what we have to do to stay in business,” he said.

When fumigating, it’s a good idea to have definite timelines and geographic locations. Many growers wait to use crop protection until night so they can spray without interfering with the community. It’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” Hinton said.

Frequent inspections of migrant housing ensure farmers are minimizing relationship problems, he said.

Don’t underestimate the power of offering a basket of strawberries, Hinton said. A personal relationship with neighbors is crucial to understanding. It’s important for farmers to take the first step to make newcomers feel like part of the area.

Sharing strawberries also can prevent neighbors, especially children, from going into the fields and picking their own, Whidden said. This can be dangerous if you’ve just sprayed or if you’ve left equipment outside.

Gradually neighbors will recognize the benefits of living near growers. Farmers are usually around and can let them know if someone is messing around their place, Whidden said. And farmers usually live next to the farm, so neighbors realize that what they are complaining about, the grower is living with too, she said.

Whidden also encourages farmers who live near subdivisions to post signs that explain the right to farm. This can reduce calls to the police department for noise or odor complaints.

One of the most important steps is to try to put yourself in the shoes of new neighbors so you can sympathize with them, said Grooms of Fancy Farms. If you want them to understand your way of life, you must make an attempt to understand how they’re feeling.

“It’s sort of like a farmer going to New York City and not knowing how to use the subway system,” Grooms said.



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