By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large
As areas of the country become more developed and populated, sustainability and creating an environment that can supply enough to feed the community is becoming more of an issue.
With the humid hot summers and lack of farming ground and right soil in areas like south Florida, urban farming has emerged as an alternative form of agriculture. However, the farming landscape in south Florida is still very much behind.
With a passion for growing, Tamer and Claire Harpke, both with hospitality backgrounds, decided to become urban farmers. Together, the husband and wife team created a labor of love, Harpke Family Farm.
The farm has grown in popularity in south Florida and has become primarily a wholesale supplier to restaurants in the Fort Lauderdale and Miami area.
We sat down with Claire to learn more about the farm, what trends they are seeing in the industry and how they are thriving in a niche market.
Can you tell us a little about how Harpke Family Farm got started?
Claire: We both have a background in hospitality management. I was recruited by a fine wine importer and a couple of years later, Tamer was recruited by the same company, Indigenous Selections. He was in sales and I was in administration and operations and we helped start this import company, as the first staff for an Italian wine producer, one of the premier producers in Italy.
We got to cut our teeth, so to speak, and be a part of beginning a start-up. So even though it seems unrelated, it provided tons of really valuable experience– like learning about compliance and sales.
Tamer was managing the Southeast regional sales position, so he was traveling to 14 different states in the Southeast. The local farming scenes in these areas were really key to high end fine dining restaurants.
Every time we'd come back to Florida, it seemed so behind the times, even with the extended growing seasons. With many things, South Florida is often 10 to 15 years behind the rest of the country.
So he realized that there's really a tremendous opportunity down here. Granted there's a lot of education that still needs to be taking place. For example, like educating chefs and consumers alike–about how opposite our growing seasons are and why local doesn't always mean cheaper.
So Harpke Farm was an organic off shoot from the wine business, but the catalyst was really when Tamer's mother had suffered a severe stroke.
He was traveling every week for three months. He knew it was time to have a paradigm shift and focus on what really makes us both happy and not kill ourselves working too hard. Not to say that farming is not hard. It's definitely the hardest work we've ever experienced, but he's never been happier and I've never been happier.
So, we decided to take a total leap of faith and put all our eggs in one basket.
What do your customers like about your produce?
Claire: What really sets us apart is that the bulk of our business is live product. We specialize in live micro-greens and live micro herbs. The reason why we positioned ourselves that way is that those are crops that we can turn out year round.
In the summer in south Florida, the vast majority of the local farms down here, shut down for three months because it's very difficult to grow traditional crops in the heat of the summer. We understood that we still needed to have revenue in the middle of the summer.
So we did some homework and research and decided that microgreens and micro herbs, while we can't offer 30 different varieties in the middle of the summer, we can still have a core product list that we can offer year round.
We deliver trays with six pods per tray of live products. A lot of other farms or even what you see retail at Farmers Markets and Whole Foods is not representing micro-greens well at all. So we find that delivering a live product, definitely sets us apart and a lot of our customers enjoy it. Plus, it's a topping piece. They can have them on tables, it's an edible garnish and décor.
The same thing goes for our retail consumers. We always encourage customers to start a relationship with us, by coming to the farm and seeing what we're about. We're a truly urban farm. We're not out in like a rural agricultural area, so it's easy to get to.
What are some of the ways that the farm employs sustainable practices?
Claire: South Florida is situated on a bed of limestone, so the soil here is pretty much pathetic.
A lot of other farms spend so much time, energy and resources building the soil, which we do too but we grow everything above ground. We grow everything in fabric jackpots. They're basic fabric glow bags and that promote a lot more air circulation. It helps with funguses or other things that we might be plagued by with humidity. Last season it was a very wet growing season and there was flooding throughout the state and agricultural states of emergency, but we were largely spared because we grow everything above ground.
So we deliver our live products and then the next week when we're delivering again, we pick up last week's pods. The pods are full of soil with the remainder of the plants. After they harvest what they use, we teach them to not throw anything away. We reuse and recycle all the trays, all the pods. That's like a full time job, just cleaning the trays and pods.
So we do our part by reusing and recycling all the pots and trays and composting all the organic matter. Not only is this eco-friendly, but also sustainable for a startup farm. That's something that we have to consider. Early on we also had like a program where we were picking up organic matter from one of the restaurants that we worked with. They had really substantial juice program, so they were going through tons of produce and we were picking up tons of produce.
How does a farm get involved in the local community?
Claire: First off, encouraging everyone to come to the farm, whether they're retail consumers or wholesale consumers. That’s the first step. Beyond that, you know we definitely donated lots of seed to school gardens and a couple elementary schools in Miami and Broward.
In the past, we have had open houses at the farm and we've had yoga practices there. Then beyond that, we partnered with a program ARC Broward. It’s a job placement organization for people with all different types of disabilities or other life challenges. So for a few months earlier this year, we employed a young man through that program and that was really great.
What are some of the trends you're seeing in the food industry both local and global?
Claire: I'm now starting to see farm lists at a couple of our accounts.
Where they give credit to the farms by specifically saying where they source their tomatoes, eggs, poultry or specialty grains. That's really cool because a lot of love goes into that and that's value added for them.
I've seen this at a few places in south Florida. I just came back from Paris visiting family and I saw that there. I hate to say it's a trend, but it truly is in south Florida because so many people, whether they're chefs or consumers, 10 years ago didn't really care about sourcing locally.
Over the last few years, I've really noticed that chefs and consumers have made local-sourcing part of the conversation finally.
California or most of France don't even say that it's local. It's just assumed, because that's just how they roll. When that should just be best practices in my opinion, but obviously I'm biased.
It is a trend down here, but either way I'm glad it's finally catching on.
What's next for the farm?
Claire: We are right off of Marina Miles, so we do get a decent amount of provisioners for some of the super high-end yachts intake. Just last weekend, we were talking about how we wanted to break into the luxury inflight dining because we are right next to Hollywood International Airport. Then literally, at that same time, we got an email from a chef who used to work at Alter, who now is working at Silver Spoon Catering, which is a premier provisioner for luxury inflight dining.
So that's exciting for us, because we do focus on non-traditional crops. We don't grow broccoli, we grow micro-broccoli. That fetches a much higher price point and it's not every restaurant that can work with our portfolio, but a lot of these specialty caterers can do so.
We also did invest in building a huge chickee hut, which is the Seminole- Indians' version of a tiki hut.
Now we can accommodate a lot more events on premises. We have a huge farm table under the chickee hut, so we'd like to start doing some high-end wine dinners, catering on premises and offer event space rentals if people want to have a farm wedding.