Simon Hoek Spaans and his wife Alina Gonzalez were living in Miami, working traditional day jobs, when they decided they wanted to become Northeast Florida farmers.
They searched for a small farm to buy, and found the perfect one – seven acres surrounded by conserved woodlands in rural Westside Jacksonville off Normandy Boulevard.
They bought it in Feb. 2014, tilled the land, and then planted their first crops – which were promptly consumed by mole crickets. Undeterred, they solved the mole cricket problem by feeding them to their chickens, and then took care of hungry deer by putting up an electric fence.
When wild turkeys started coming around, they were concerned about them too – until discovering that turkeys eat crop-destroying insects, which is great because their farm is pesticide free.
“We’re urban folk trying to serve urban folk” fresh, healthy food, Alina said one day following the coldest night of the year. Temperatures had dropped to 21 degrees, so they’d spent hours insulating crops by wrapping them by hand.
“It’s our first foray into farming,” she says with a smile. “And we’re going to have ups and downs.”
Farming is physically demanding and risky. It requires working seven days a week. And it’s a complete career change for the couple, who sell their produce and free range eggs at the Beaches Green Market and the Atlantic Beach Market.
But they say it’s worth it.
“It’s an adventure, and it’s exciting,” Alina says.
Ups and downs “are inherent in farming,” says Simon. “Because you have so many variables.”
Simon, who grew up in the Netherlands, also knows that it is difficult to make a living on a small farm, especially while focusing on quality versus quantity. So once they become established, he plans to incorporate another income stream by modeling their farm on small non-profit “Care Farms” that have become a trend in his homeland.
Care Farms host day programs for segments of the population that can benefit from doing productive, meaningful hands-on work in a clean air environment. Group members do chores around the farm, then prepare and eat a meal together. Netherland farmers specialize in serving specific groups, such as the elderly, prisoners, inner city children and people with disabilities. Simon hopes that his Care Farm can serve as a model for other First Coast farmers.
Since farming is new to them, Simon and Alina have not yet selected the population they want to serve. For now, they are re-modeling their farm house, and planting and harvesting seasonal crops.
Winter crops included bok choy, rutabagas, turnips; red beets; Swiss chard; Brussels sprouts, Romaine lettuce; escarole; cauliflower; broccoli and kale.
The Spring harvest will be soy beans, onions, zucchini, carrots, mustard greens, Chinese cabbage; snow peas, black beans, melons, eggplants and asparagus, as well as sunflowers and zinnias.
“We plant everything from seeds, and I harvest the same day that I sell,” says Simon, who also just started an orchard that includes persimmons, citrus, oranges, Meyer lemons, plums, figs, kiwis, olives, Muscadine grapes and blueberries.
“Not everything will be available all the time,” Alina says. “But we will always have a variety of stuff to sell.”
Their goal is to offer people fresh, non-industrialized food, and learning successful growing techniques is an ongoing educational process. The University of Florida IFAS website offers a wealth of information to farmers, Alina says, providing information on types of plants, when to plant, problems to look for, and dealing with bugs and plant diseases.
They also attend classes and workshops offered by the Duval County Extension Office, as well as some offered by nearby counties. At a recent Bradford County class, they learned how to inoculate logs to grow shiitake mushrooms.
“We’ll experiment with that,” Alina says. Once they start their Comfort Farm, “we want to have enough variety so that there will be something for everyone to do.”
So far, she says she is “very happy” with the way things are going. They have many regular customers at the farmers markets, and the food they have been growing “is crazy delicious.”
“It’s awesome,” she says. “One day we were in Miami, and now we’re here. Surrounded by nature – it’s beautiful.”
DIY: Plant a Permaculture Garden
Permaculture gardening mimics the way plants grow in nature, eliminating the need for watering and fertilizer.
Urban Folk Farm offers these tips for planting legumes in your garden:
1. Dig a hole
2. Put in some new wood (from recently fallen trees or branches, nothing processed)
3. Put in some old wood (from seasoned downed trees or branches)
4. Add compost
5. Fill with water
6. Cover with dirt from the hole, creating a mound about a foot high
7. Seed with a legume, for example peas.
8. Cover with hay
9. Harvest peas when ready
Information about Urban Folk Farm:
14080 Normandy Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 904.647.6402
Produce available at: Beaches Green Market, Jarboe Park, Neptune Beach –Saturdays from 2 to 5 p.m.
Atlantic Beach Mid-Week Market, Bull Park, Atlantic Beach – Wednesday afternoons. Winter hours 3 to 6 p.m.; Spring hours 4 to 7 p.m.