Betting on the farm

It's Thursday afternoon in the operations room of the Homegrown Organic Local Food Co-op tucked into the cluster of socially responsible businesses around Thornton Avenue, off Colonial Drive. At 2:30 p.m. the doors open as scheduled for the weekly pick-up portion of the otherwise online farmer's market shopping experience. Soon the foot traffic kicks in and a mix of youthful, middle-aged and elderly members moves in and moves out. They know the drill.

Bunches of bright greens peek out of the bins, along with luscious specimens of tomatoes, yellow squash, red potatoes and purple basil — some pulled from the ground or picked that very morning by the farmers, just before delivery. Save a few exceptions, the produce here is grown within a 50-mile radius and most is organic.

The fine-tuned process that so well serves the Homegrown Organic Local Food Co-op has been three years in the making, explains market director Michael Tiner, 30. A growth spurt over the last year doubled the membership to 300 households, creating a need for additional square footage. In a surprise collision of the grassroots agricultural co-op and healthcare corporate giant Florida Hospital, Tiner and his nine-member board have struck a partnership with the Seventh-day Adventist institution, one of the largest hospitals in the nation. As of this week, the pick-up bins are to be readied by volunteers in Homegrown's new complex at 2310 N. Orange Ave., north of Princeton Street, in the hospital's "Health Village," a 10-year project that has only just begun.

The fine-tuned process that so well serves the Homegrown Organic Local Food Co-op has been three years in the making, explains market director Michael Tiner, 30. A growth spurt over the last year doubled the membership to 300 households, creating a need for additional square footage. In a surprise collision of the grassroots agricultural co-op and healthcare corporate giant Florida Hospital, Tiner and his nine-member board have struck a partnership with the Seventh-day Adventist institution, one of the largest hospitals in the nation. As of this week, the pick-up bins are to be readied by volunteers in Homegrown's new complex at 2310 N. Orange Ave., north of Princeton Street, in the hospital's "Health Village," a 10-year project that has only just begun.

The Homegrown farmer's co-op idea came out of a class project at the Florida School of Holistic Living, directed by Tiner's wife, Emily Ruff, who is a board member for the co-op and assists with the operations. According to Tiner, a think-tank session about how to improve the community turned into the decision to tackle Central Florida farmers and local food sustainability. As of January, Homegrown Co-op and the school were made independent but reciprocal nonprofit organizations.

Among the many reasons to understand the relevance of the local food sustainability movement, Tiner explains, is considering what would happen in a crisis — natural, manmade, whatever. "So what happens if the port in Jacksonville gets shut down, if all of a sudden Florida's panhandle were just kind of shut off from the rest of the world? It would really not be but a couple of days before there was chaos … because everyone is hungry, and all of the Doritos have run out and, oh my god, what are we going to eat now?"

If the farmers in Central Florida were independent and producing enough fresh food for the community, local plates would remain full. "Communities are only as strong as their food systems," Ruff adds. "And the more we can strengthen that, then that really ensures a healthier future for our economy and the general community."

The think tank decided that local farmers were an "endangered species," and that prospect seemed "extremely detrimental to the overall food sustainability of Central Florida," says Tiner. That's "because, first of all, there are not that many existing food production farms — it is a gross deficiency. And the amount of people that live in Central Florida versus the amount of food produced here is extremely inadequate."

"Since 1935, the U.S. has lost 4.7 million farms. Fewer than one million Americans now claim farming as a primary occupation," reports the FoodRoutes Network website (, which works to "rebuild local, community-based food systems."

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the annual economic impact of Florida's agriculture contributions is estimated at more than $100 billion, though most of the farms belong to giant food conglomerates, says Tiner.

Statistics updated over the past few years by a variety of organizations generally estimate that the "food miles" — the average distance traveled from farm to table — is approximately 1,500 miles, whereas locavores around the country have been successful in reducing that rate to a 50-60 mile radius, including Homegrown.

The arrangement between Homegrown and Florida Hospital is what the hospital's vice president and chief executive officer, Brian Paradis, 46, calls a "social venture capital" experiment. It blends the Seventh-day Adventist religion's prescription for health and healing with Christ-like compassion in their ministrations to the community.

There's no dispute, even in the mainstream, that superior food leads to superior constitutions that are less prone to chronic maladies, leading to happier lives. "(The hospital believes) we have to put our money where our mouth is to create a catalyst for change in the community," says Paradis.

As agreed, the property owned by the Adventist Health System/Sunbelt Inc. and situated in the developing Health Village area has been offered to the group rent-free for 18 months and is then subject to renegotiation. Homegrown Co-op will be a short walk from Florida Hospital's main campus and its approximately 4,000 employees.

Additionally, Florida Hospital approved a $25,000 matching grant to stimulate the capital fundraising campaign needed by Homegrown to fully develop the property and business. Every dollar donated by the public will be matched by the hospital, generating a possible inflow of up to $50,000, and the process and progress can be followed on the Homegrown Co-op site (

In exchange, Paradis says the hospital gains another tenant in its Health Village, and hospital employees are to benefit through an as yet undetermined type of discounted program. The arrangement supports the hospital's Healthy 100 initiative (, which dovetails into the findings of writer Dan Buettner's research for his highly publicized 2008 book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest.

Buettner cited the Seventh-day Adventist community in Loma Linda, Calif., as one of his longevity or "blue" zones — the only one in the U.S. — and continues his own public outreach to share the secrets for extending life he claims to have discovered while traveling the world ( Nurturing blue-zone longevity in Central Florida is something Florida Hospital is actively working on, says Paradis. And accessibility to affordable, quality, nutritious food is one of the essentials.

But Florida Hospital's Paradis deliberately partnered with an entity outside of the hospital's insular system, rather than re-create the project within the hospital system. "I'm big enough to do the whole thing," says Paradis of the hospital's resources, "but I'm choosing to talk to (Homegrown Co-op), because (those) guys are so passionate — I call Michael and Emily ‘community passionaries.'"

The trio of freestanding concrete-block structures, built around 1939, on the donated parcel, in the block between Wendy's and 7-Eleven, are to be transformed into three separate enterprises. The upgrading of the 1,200-square-foot warehouse in the back of the parking lot, dedicated to the cooperative's activities, is Phase 1 and should be completed in time for Thursday pick-up transition. No disruption in co-op activity is the plan, says Tiner.

Phase 2 involves converting the main 2,013-square-foot structure on Orange Avenue into a retail storefront that will maintain regular operating hours. That leaves the charming, faux-brick-painted 280-square-foot oddity of a building as the takeout shop. Both businesses should open in the fall, according to Tiner. Depending on how much money is raised in the capital campaign, an awning will be installed by then to cover the planned courtyard between the store and takeout shop.

In addition to the matching grant from the hospital (progress can be tracked on, the co-op received a $5,000 development grant from Charity Cars Inc., in addition to a refurbished delivery truck for bread deliveries. In a serendipitous personal meeting a few years ago, Tiner found out that Charity Cars Inc., which receives donated cars and distributes and sells them to benefit the needy or to raise funds for other nonprofits, had just established Charity Farms Inc. ( The like-minded nonprofit, which works toward "a planetary hunger and health solution," teaches organic farming methods and helps to establish start-up farms. Some of the produce raised is donated to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

What sets the Homegrown Organic Local Food Co-op apart from other business models is the ultimate goal that no one takes home the money.

"We are trying to create a system where, beyond the payment of the operating costs, there is no profit," says Tiner. "We're not creating a system here to make one person or a tiny group of people wealthy." Instead profits would be returned to the co-op members as shares in the company.

Currently, Florida agricultural statutes don't even recognize a member cooperative with a sharing mission as a viable business structure, so both Tiner and Ruff understand that lobbying for changes are going to be part of attaining their goal. Those are grounding principals that Tiner is adamant about achieving, even though he appears to be an acute enough businessman that he's willing to make small concessions to get the job done. For example, in deference to Florida Hospital's preferences not to deal in pork, the co-op — just like the Wendy's down the street — won't carry pig products. And beer, which may be part of the co-op's offerings at some point in the future, won't be on the shelves right now.

One reason for the growth over the past year in the co-op's membership, says Ruff, is that more people are gravitating toward healthy eating and supporting local farmers from all walks of life — old-schoolers who've been growing their own since the Depression, young vegans and vegetarians devoted to breaking the chains of corporate control, individuals with health conditions that don't tolerate any type of additives or pesticides, plus those with religious observations that seek the purity of the product.

Ruff says that's "because so many amazing things are happening in the mainstream as the teachings of author Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma) are consumed by the masses.

"So this topic has started to reach that critical mass where people who were not otherwise engaged are exposed, and I think we are seeing it happening everywhere and connecting to the sustainability movement," Ruff says.

In the meantime, just like clockwork, the doors will open at 2:30 p.m. Thursdays for custom orders to be picked up in the spacious, by comparison, new quarters on Orange Avenue. Homegrown Co-op is an online farmer's market; it turns on a software solution that provides the critical distribution system needed to connect farmers with consumers. Each co-op member pays a $40-per-year fee in addition to food purchased. Tiner is the only full-time paid staff member, and there are two part-time positions in the operations arm, including Ruff.

Members complete their orders over the Internet on Tuesdays; there's no minimum order or requirement to participate each week. One of the few absolute rules is that the member must pay for a placed order whether it's picked up or not. Tiner reports that members are responsible and understand that they have to cover the cost; otherwise, this is the kind of loss that kills many cooperative efforts.

In addition to produce, there are cartons of unbleached eggs not long separated from their source, loaves of bread — vegan baguettes, even — and repackaged bulk items, such as seeds, lentils and beans. Milk and goat cheeses cultured at area dairy farms can be ordered, and cuts of grass-fed beef were recently added to the menu. The "shopping list" of available items continually grows as well as changes from week to week.

Ruff explains that the cost differences can't be accurately computed, apple for apple. But generally, the prices are competitive with comparable produce at mainstream (like Publix) and alternative (like Whole Foods) outlets, give or take some higher and lower prices that change with the seasons, just like the weather that affects the crops. Delivery routes are developing around town, so it's also possible to never leave home and still scramble farm-fresh eggs, even when the rooster doesn't crow.

While Florida Hospital is fulfilling its purported commitment to healing and health, Homegrown's mission is strengthening local food sustainability in this community. The goal: Enough food to feed the residents and support growers without the need to purchase from outside the region, which cuts local farmers out of the economic equation. The challenge is working around antiquated agricultural statutes that work against the small farmers and favor the conglomerates — a situation being addressed by reformers all across the country. And then there are the state revenue department codes differing state by state that prevent any shared dividends being earned by co-op members.

For example, Tiner says, several years ago the New Leaf Market (the former Leon County Food Co-op) in Tallahassee, one of the most successful models in the state, had to re-file its incorporation papers in the state of Minnesota. According to the New Leaf Market website (, "The state of Florida prohibits retail cooperatives. From 1974 through 2000 New Leaf Market did business as a cooperative without legally being recognized as such. In January 2001 New Leaf Market reincorporated as a cooperative in the state of Minnesota." It was then able to change to a patronage rebate system rather than giving discounts at the register "regardless of whether the store had made a profit." This change is the reason the Tallahassee co-op says it has been able to stop losses and shift into a growth phase.

Another area ripe for reform is federal agricultural subsidies that favor large, well-heeled producers. A study released by the Environmental Working Group ( using 2007 data detailed the problem. "Though net farm income reached a record level of $88.7 billion in 2007, propelled by high market prices for major crops, Washington still sent out over $5 billion of taxpayers' money in ‘direct payment' farm subsidies to over 1.4 million recipients," Ken Cook, president of EWG, wrote on the group's website. "Over 60 percent of the subsidy was pocketed by just 10 percent of the recipients — the largest and generally wealthiest subsidized farming operations in the country."

Tiner can't wait around for the reforms to happen. He's already in up to his elbows in concrete progress. Same goes for Paradis, on a much larger scale, who sums up the benefits for his employees: access to high-quality local food, support of sustainable agriculture in Central Florida and creation of a model that could be developed in other communities. "It's our overarching strategy of how to create a Healthy 100. For a health-oriented institution we have to put our money where our mouth is to create a catalyst for change," he says.

Considering the big picture, Paradis says, "The world is too full of polarity. Both Michael and I have tried to stay very oriented toward common goals. We want people to live better, and there is something we should be doing responsibly about our environment. … I am one of those people that says you can talk about it all you want, but tell me what can you do."

Tiner and Paradis had met at the co-op before learning about their common interests that would eventually lead to the alliance. But there was a meeting of the minds between the two leaders, and both as a team and as individuals they are working on how to change food to benefit health in the community.

"The biggest thing contributing to this awakening around food issues are the facts. And the fact of the matter is that the state of the American diet is not working," says Tiner. "It is making you sick." With disgust, he tells of a health report released that day about how recent research found that insurance companies are now among the biggest financial investors in the fast-food industry.

According to Tiner, "There's a tidal wave of facts that prove that, holy crap, the system is broken and we need to get back to our dietary roots."

[email protected]