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Patricia Wilson, Tara Raven, Ngan Gilkison and Jaden Hair are eager to educate the public about organic, sustainable farming.
East County Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2010 11 years ago

TOP STORY, JUNE: SmartFarm takes root

by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Throughout the holiday week, will be counting down the top 12 stories of 2010 (one from each month) from our Longboat, East County and Sarasota Observers. Check back each day for a reprinting — and any relevant updates — of the biggest news items of the year.


LAKEWOOD RANCH — When Jaden Hair’s son was 3 years old, he thought oranges came from a truck.
At the time, Hair, a Greenbrook resident, thought his answer was so cute.

But after visiting a spa in Tecate, Mexico, in February and seeing a poor village where a group of women have started a recycling business and an organic community farm — and seeing a happy healthy little boy there in the midst of extreme poverty — Hair came back with a vision to teach children all about the origins of the food they enjoy.

“It was gorgeous in the middle of nothing,” Hair said of the garden. “What made me want to do (a community farm here) was the stark contrast between what my kids have — everything — and this little boy. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something different.’”

As Hair began sharing her idea, she connected with GreyHawk resident Ngan Gilkison and Out-of-Door Academy parents Tara Raven and Patricia Wilson, who have now partnered to bring Hair’s vision for a children’s garden to life and expand it into a community farm called the Lakewood Ranch SmartFarm.

Through Hair’s connections as a food blogger and national food columnist, the women plan to bring the SmartFarm into the national spotlight, educating the public about sustainable and organic farming while raising awareness of Lakewood Ranch — the largest green community in the country — and hopefully inspiring the creation other SmartFarms throughout the nation.

“We’re all taking a giant leap of faith,” Raven said.

Schroeder-Manatee Ranch President Rex Jensen already has offered the use of a 5-acre site off 44th Avenue, near Gullett Elementary School, for the project.

“I think the idea is simply fantastic,” Jensen said. “You stop and think about the educational value this would have — to teach a child where food comes from, what to do with it, and teach them some aspect of business, some aspect of agricultural heritage and my company.

“Most people think Lakewood Ranch was built because we built houses,” he said. “It was built because it’s an environment where people became involved in building their own community. That’s how this community became what it is.”

Once finished, the farm will include a children’s garden with a story stage for performances, book readings and other educational programs, a classroom to teach families to grow their own gardens and enclosed pole barn with a teaching kitchen that includes studio lighting to record cooking shows and host cooking demonstrations led by Hair. There will even be a smoothie machine powered by a bicycle.

The farm also will utilize aquaponics — growing fish in a closed-tank system that can be used to fertilize plants — and an apiary to promote plant health without chemical fertilizers. There also will be a henhouse, a compost pile and an orchard for fruit trees.

“We’re trying to get the carbon footprint down to zero,” said Raven, who designed the facility.

Families and businesses will be able to lease garden plots to grow their own produce, and there will be restrictions on the land to ensure plots are cared for properly.

Eventually, the women also hope to use the farming operation as a place for corporate and other training opportunities.

“Now, everyone wants to get back to the basics,” Wilson said. “It’s an eye-opener for them to get their hands in the ground.”

She said she also hopes the experience will raise environmental awareness and spur companies and their decision-makers toward policies that help — not hurt — the environment.

Hair, who has gained national attention through her blog, and is a food columnist for the Discovery Channel’s TLC program, among other accomplishments, will begin promoting the farm nationally when she appears on Martha Stewart’s radio program June 9. The project also has the endorsement of the Discovery Health Channel.

“We need help,” Hair said. “We need money. We need volunteers to pull this together.”

SmartFarm organizers are looking for grant writers, graphic designers, videographers, architects, fund-raisers and others who wish to help with the project. Anyone interested in getting involved or making a contribution can visit or e-mail [email protected].

The women hope to construct the farm in “Extreme Makeover” fashion during three days in October.

Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].

SmartFarm Mission Statement
The mission of the LWR SmartFarm is to provide quality educational and culinary programs to local and visiting citizens that will foster an appreciation for homegrown food, culinary skills and sustainable gardening while promoting the SmartFarm ideology as a unique, comprehensive resource that unites the community. The LWR SmartFarm seeks to accomplish its mission by combining small class sizes and innovative programs with traditional values.

East County residents bellied up to the bar to raise funds for the Lakewood Ranch SmartFarm during The Polo Grill and Bar’s Charity Bartending Night Aug. 26. Organizers originally hoped to have an “Extreme Makeover”-style construction event in October, but funding is not yet in place. Instead, organizers now hope to open the farm to the public in February 2011.


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