Seed money

A proposed urban garden near Lake Eola is burdened by ties to a giant agribusiness

Eola Garden community engagement meeting, hosted by Melissa Barron

Thursday, Sept. 29 at 5:30 p.m.
Urban ReThink

When Tia Meer first heard the proposal for the garden, she was ecstatic. Her colleague Richard Powell says he was “grinning from ear to ear.” At the July 20 Organic Growers meeting held at Leu Gardens, a woman named Melissa Barron announced that she had permission from the city of Orlando to plant a vegetable garden in the long-vacant patch of land next to the Panera Bread near Lake Eola, on Robinson Street. Barron’s boyfriend, the ubiquitous downtown developer Craig Ustler, came up with the idea for his unused, .35-acre piece of land more than two years ago when the real estate slump showed no signs of letting up. But neither Ustler nor Barron are experienced gardeners, so they needed the help of those who were – people like Meer and Powell. Ideally, once the garden was producing food, Ustler’s three downtown restaurants would have a supply of fresh, local produce, while Meer, the president of the Simple Living Institute, and Powell, at the time an assistant manager for the Homegrown Local Food Cooperative, would have the opportunity to spread the gospel of growing one’s own food through hands-on educational programs. It was “a dream come true,” according to Meer, who had already been searching for ways her organization could “give city folk an opportunity to experience the process of growing food.”

There was, however, one caveat. Barron said that the garden would have a corporate sponsor: her employer, Syngenta Professional Products. Meer had never heard of the company, so she did some research when she got home from the meeting. What she found frightened her: Syngenta, headquartered in Switzerland, is a multibillion dollar business specializing in the production of genetically modified seeds, as well as pesticides and herbicides. From the perspective of Meer and like-minded organic growers, it’s a conglomerate comparable in destructive potential to the Monsanto Co., which is known for its “ruthless legal battles against small farmers,” as Vanity Fair put it in a 2008 story on the company. When it was clear that Syngenta’s involvement was non-negotiable, Meer and Powell withdrew their support. Without the endorsement of the city’s de facto “gardening authorities,” Powell figured, the idea was dead. But earlier this month, he learned that Barron was moving forward with plans for the Eola Garden. Powell sounded an alarm on Facebook: “Community garden or corporate profit positioning?” he wrote. The message spread throughout Orlando’s network of organic growers, and in turn, so did the notion that the tendrils of Big Ag had spread to Orlando’s local growing community.

According to Barron, the Eola Garden is slated to be a fenced-in “private urban garden,” not a “community garden,” as Powell called it. “We never used the C-word,” Barron says. Still, despite the fact that neither the land nor the project nor the vegetables’ final destination is public, local growers worry about the interactive classes in the garden planned for Howard Middle School students. Emily Ruff, director of the Florida School of Holistic Living, fears that a garden associated with Syngenta will give students a perverted idea of sustainability. She mentions the “terminator gene,” a genetic modification that causes a crop’s second-generation seeds to be sterile. In theory, this guarantees that growers will need to purchase new seeds with each planting season, hence, funneling more money into agribusiness companies that sell them. “It’s not a way to keep a farm in business – it’s a way to keep a corporation in business,” Ruff says. “I certainly consider it a poor example of sustainability to be teaching those middle schoolers.” (Though Syngenta reportedly holds several patents on terminator technology, it also maintains a policy prohibiting the commercial production of terminator seeds.)

Barron, who works as a sales manager in the company’s lawn and garden division, argues that Eola Garden would indeed be a model of sustainability, because the vegetables would not be trucked long distances by fossil fuel-powered vehicles, as is the norm for much of the produce sold for human consumption. More importantly, she paints the controversy as misconstrued – along with Syngenta spokesperson Paul Minehart, Barron says that the garden is her own private project, not Syngenta’s. But that wasn’t the message relayed to those at the Organic Growers meeting, nor zoning officials at the city of Orlando. When Meer and the Simple Living Institute backed out of the project in July, solely on the basis of Syngenta’s apparent sponsorship, Barron made no effort to correct her – instead, Barron agreed that the partnership would not work. In addition, Barron’s January 2010 zoning change request to the city of Orlando is printed on Syngenta letterhead, contains a sentence that begins with the phrase “On behalf of Syngenta,” and even asserts that “Syngenta will monitor the planting and growth of the seasonal vegetables.” Until recently, a flier advertising a public meeting to discuss plans for the garden, displayed at the Publix on Central Avenue, even bore the Syngenta logo.

Minehart says the company’s supposed involvement was “a misunderstanding on Melissa’s part”; Barron says that she misconstrued her bosses’ appraisal of the idea to mean that her company was fully onboard with the proposal. But she also now doubts the garden will even come to exist, given the uncomfortable attention that her project has received from her own company after repeated questioning by the Orlando Weekly. If the project does go forward, she says, the vegetables would not come from genetically modified seeds. “I know that there wouldn’t be any GMO crops,” she says. “[But] there is no guaranteed garden.” (Barron’s partner in the project, Chris Merritt, could not be reached for comment.)

The most discouraging remarks about the garden, however, have come from Ustler himself. When he spoke to the Weekly by phone, he wondered aloud if a successful urban garden is compatible with a privately owned piece of land slated for commercial development – if the garden does come to exist, he says, it will be only an interim use for the plot. “You can’t take land that people have invested in, and somebody’s loaned money on, and encumber it by saying, ‘This is just going to be a garden for the next five years,’” he says. “If Hilton Hotels called me tomorrow and said, ‘Craig, I’d like to buy that site,’ I’d have to be able to sell it to them.”

If either Ustler or Barron’s pessimistic outlook for their own project comes to pass, it will complete an ironic life cycle for the Eola Garden. After all, the Syngenta brand and Ustler’s connections were arguably the reason for the Eola Garden idea in the first place, and almost certainly, one of those two forces will be blamed for its demise.