Kindred spirits in the world of food – from South Bend to Florida

“I want to be with the people who submerge
in the task, who go into the field to harvest
and work in a row, and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.”
–from “To Be Of Use” by Marge Piercy

Apalachicola, Florida Farmers Market

I get to travel a lot these days. Back home in South Bend I eat local, support local and cook local as much as possible. So, naturally, I look for the local food scene everywhere I go. It’s there I find not only my preferred food, but also my kindred spirits. I met two here in Apalachicola, Florida, recently: organic gardener Amber Cain and community activist Holly Brown.

But first a few words about lovely little Apalachicola, an oystering village in the Florida panhandle where the Apalachicola River meets the Apalachicola Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico: Every ecosystem has its farming challenges, and Apalachicola’s is arable land. Inland, Apalachicola is bordered by 632,890 acres of national forest, largely cypress swamp and longleaf pine. And bears. I did a google-search for land for sale in the county, and when I selected only farming-related land, the offerings went from 267 down to one. One. That puts the challenges of eating local other than seafood — and bear — in perspective.

Organic gardener Amber Cain, who sports green and blue hair these days — “I let my daughters pick the colors this time” — discovered her love of gardening when she was a child in Detroit. “We had a neighbor lady named Mrs. Dee, and, there at the corner of Toledo and Junction — which was a horrible neighborhood — she had the prettiest garden! She would let me come over. She’d feed me her quiche and show me things, like how to separate lily of the valley tips. I loved it.”

Apalachicola, Florida Farmers Market - Amber Cain

“When we moved to Florida, I joined 4-H and FFA and learned I could grow things too.” When her son David was a toddler, he would follow along behind her in her garden, popping cherry tomatoes and baby carrots right out of the dirt. She realized that everything chemical she was putting on her garden was also going straight into her son’s mouth. “I began thinking organic.”

In this area, you can buy all the local oysters and shrimp and grouper you can eat, but local fruits and vegetables are scarce. When Amber began selling her extra strawberries to her neighbors, they bought everything she could grow. Next, Amber grew tomatoes in tires, and again her neighbors bought them all. Responding to a need that matched her interests, Amber kept going. So far she’s gone from selling her homegrown strawberries and tire-grown tomatoes to running an organic foods buying club, to selling at Apalachicola’s new Farmer’s Market, to now preparing to open a teeny tiny local/organic foods store in downtown Apalachicola.

Amber and her husband Josh have bought an acre and a half of high ground in neighboring Eastpoint. “We’re going to haul off the abandoned mobile homes on the property and put in citrus trees. We’re going to build raised beds for a vegetable garden. And we’re going to sell what we grow at the store.”

When I asked her if she was going to continue to sell at the Apalachicola Farmer’s Market, she said, “Of course!” She then covered her face with her hands, thought for a minute, and looking up, said, “I guess I’m gonna have to hire somebody to run the store, aren’t I?”

That’s good news to Holly Brown, who counts on Amber as one of the farmer’s markets biggest suppliers. Brown, a former news producer from New England who moved to Apalachicola just two years ago, founded the Apalachicola Farmers Market with her husband Creighton, a master craftsman restorer of old buildings. The Browns have virtually adopted their neighborhood in the Historic North end of town, which is filled with abandoned Florida vernacular “cracker” houses they are trying to revitalize.

Apalachicola, Florida Farmers Market - Holly Brown

“I’m not political about food. For me, it’s all about community,” Brown says. “There is no good produce here. But there used to be; there is a history of farming in this area. The winter greens — kale and collards mostly — grow carefree in the community garden. Eggplants, squash, winter greens, beans, and peas all grow here.”

The Apalachicola Farmer’s Market is held every second and fourth Saturday in the Brown’s neighborhood at the Mill Pond Boat Basin, a commercial boat basin built for local fishermen, oysterers and shrimpers. “I went to a couple of their meeting and found that the fishermen were open to the idea of having a farmer’s market at their pavilion. Next we went to the bimonthly farmers market in Port St. Joe, about 20 miles up the coast and asked the local farmers and suppliers there if they’d consider coming to Apalachicola on the alternate Saturdays. She smiles: “Nearly everybody said yes.”

So they recruited local musicians and ordered coffee from Lucky Goat in Tallahassee, which Holly sells at her booth alongside her local grapefruit marmalade. They invited the town’s churches to sell prepared meals. They invited Amber to sell local and organic produce. And in July 2015, the Apalachicola Farmers market, a community effort, was born.

The ever-so-quotable Michael Pollan says in the new movie “PolyFaces” about the ever-so-admirable Joel Salatin, “Most of us eat thoughtlessly. And that’s how we got into this trouble.” Think about it: there is a history of farming in every community. Before railways and highways and refrigeration, most all food was produced locally. My new friends Amber Cain and Holly Brown are enriching their own lives helping to restore that important element to human culture. How about you?

Molly B. MoonMolly B. Moon

Molly B. Moon is a musician, writer and community activist who lives in South Bend, Indiana, when she’s not traveling. She was introduced to good food and good cooking by the hippies, who took the subject very seriously. She worked her way through college cooking at South Bend’s locally-owned vegetarian natural foods restaurant The Cornucopia. After graduating from IUSB, Molly spent many years teaching Language Arts in South Bend’s School-Age Mothers Program. She now writes about local food on her own dime and sits on the board of the Purple Porch Co-op.

That’s where I met Molly, at the Purple Porch. In her silky smooth voice, she told me the story of the co-op for a blog post and convinced me to become a member. In October last year, Molly and I attended a food writing conference in Iowa City together and over that weekend claimed each other as kindred spirits. You can read about our experience on the Edible Michiana website.