History and the people who make it: James Steele

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the 32nd in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.

James Steele was interviewed by Jessica Charlton [C] in 2011.

S: I was born May 20, 1950. My dad was stationed in the Navy in Key West, so when I was two years old, we moved to Miami. The Seminole Indians still lived in the Everglades, and you can see their chickee huts. They’re canoeing around just a few miles from our house. Now, it’s miles and miles of city built up.

I grew up in North Dade County, just below Hollywood/Fort Lauderdale area, from 1952 to 1974. I owned a home in Miramar when I was nineteen. I turned my yard into a garden and grew trees and herbs. Mother Earth News just came out with its second issue in 1970, focused on getting back to the land. I said, that’s me.

I was a land surveyor at the time. I would travel all of the state surveying. it was the best job in the world, making maps. Traveling around Florida allowed me to see rural land and how pretty it was up here.

C: [What] influences in your childhood set you for something like that?

S: My mom, probably, always gardening, planting trees. We had banana trees and mangos in our yard. When I bought my first home, the first thing I did was start landscaping and planting a garden.

I wasn’t in that home long, about two and a half years. I was a vegetarian, and the second issue Mother Earth News  dealt with the homestead. That edition influenced the whole generation. The average age of today’s farmers is sixty, sixty-one years old. That is my age. That magazine got a lot of people farming.

Back then, it was printed on newsprint, all recycled. They had a six-hundred forty acre farm in North Carolina where they put to practice new types of chicken coops and windmills. I worked there for a summer, about 1975, before I moved to Europe.

I was approached by the military, Army Mapping Division, and asked, how would you like to be a mapmaker in the Army?

I was against the Vietnam War totally. But they made me a good deal, and this is 1976, now, Vietnam was over. It was probably the hardest decision I ever had in my life.

Right after basic training, they made me a sergeant right off the bat. They paid me to travel over Europe making maps. I got an apartment outside of Heidelberg, and I always volunteered in their beautiful community gardens.

When I got out after three years, I came home and did some hard thinking. I went to summer school at Miami-Dade Community College, took another semester of German, and moved over there. Got a job in a wildlife office and stayed four more years.

C: What brought you back?

S: The weather. [Laughter] I hate cold.

In Amsterdam, I happened to go into an herb shop. That changed my life, too, going into that shop. All these teas and dried herbs and this long-haired dude spent hours with me. So, I said, I am going to make my herb hobby my profession.

I had four years of free college from the Army. Got a degree in farm management. Santa Fe had a farm management program then. They don’t have it now. And then transferred to UF for Ag Extension. I was taking twenty-one hours.

I worked at a gas station on the graveyard shift on weekends, so I could do my homework and studying at night. I had all those other times to develop my five acres outside of High Springs. I started teaching organic gardening through Santa Fe.

I got married in ’85 and, in ’88, when my daughter was born, I decided to focus on medicinal herbs, and I made all her medicines.

When my son [was] born a year and a half later, I made all their skin salves, chapsticks and stuff. I decided to start my own business, and started the herb garden in 1989, in Melrose. I still own the herb garden.

I grew all my own food. I canned everything, dehydrated it or froze it. I had chickens. I taught a lot of classes, how to grow vegetables and herbs, how to make medicinal preparations.

I went to elementary schools and taught about herbs and how they’re in their products, showed them the peppermint plant. Or ginger ale and where ginger comes from, what real ginger looks like. Marshmallows, they never realize a marshmallow is a plant. I did that for twenty years. I spoke to every garden club in Gainesville.

I got to know a lot of growers when they were just starting out. Then I started my website, Gainesville Farm Fresh. I got involved with Sustainable Alachua County. I met Gretchen, and Liz Nesbit, who [were] thinking about doing a co-op in early 2008. I was elected to their Board of Directors.

C: We’re looking at the Gainesville Farm Fresh website right now.

S: It covers farmers markets, [and] organizations like the Co-Op, Blue Oven Kitchens.

C: Could you tell me more about the original intent of the co-op?

S: We wanted to build a secure food community here in Gainesville. There’s so many local growers here, and we wanted to support them and give them a place to sell their products. We figured a co-op would be a place to do that, like a farmer’s market seven days a week, and we’d try to get as much local products as possible.

C: Do they need to be organic farms?

S: No. I’m the produce buyer here — I buy from farms that grow organically but they’re not certified. I buy almost, I’ll say 99 percent organic products. Sometimes people want tomatoes or they want this, and if I can’t get them, I’ll go to Rainbow Produce. As long as people know that this was grown conventionally, we’ll stock it in an emergency. Most of the time, we buy from distributors that sell nothing but certified organic.

We try to get everything grown here in-season, but when you get a gap between July and September when nothing’s being grown here, I call Global Organics or Albert’s Organics to get certified organic stuff. We start local, and our policy is we go out till we can find it.

I have about five things I look for. I’m gonna look for quality, for good environmental practices, how they treat their workers. Are they supporting the co-op? If you’re supporting me, I’m gonna be supporting you.

Food like ours, certified organic, it’s hard for lower income people to afford it. We try to find ways where we can make it affordable, and now we just got our EBTs.

When we start having food education classes out here, we want to educate people to know that the value of food isn’t just in that price. We’re saving energy by not shipping it far; we’re promoting families in our own community.

When you go to Publix — I’m not putting Publix down, it’s just a good example — all that money is going out of state. Large farms are subsidized, and local farms aren’t, so the food is a little more expensive. But [here] you’re getting a lot more value, just not in the cost, but in what you’re saving in environment and in energy when you buy local like this.

We counted on our membership, the word-of-mouth would be supportive, but we have four hundred members that’ve never been in the store.

One thing we’re trying to do here, is have a little higher than normal wages. Rather than start people at the minimum wage, there’s a few dollars above that, and we want to maintain that.

C: Do you feel like there is a large population of people living here that are out of touch with their food?

S: Yeah.

C: Why do you think that is?

S: Some people aren’t educated on where their food comes from. If they knew about feed lots, McDonald’s burgers – do they know what’s happening behind the scenes to get that meat?

Organizations in Gainesville are bringing more of that to their attention. Civic Media Center puts out film series, Blue Oven Kitchens … there’s so many good organizations now, Slow Food Gainesville, Stefanie Hamblen with Hogtown HomeGrown, making people more aware of the value of local food and community gardens.

C: Florida Organic Growers has a really awesome program with the gift gardens that they try to give to low-income families or schools.

S: FOG does that, put gardens at churches. I see more and more churches with those gift gardens. Most churches, they cook a lot and they have these kitchens. They’re excellent organizations to tap into to grow gardens. More school gardens should be popping up: gardens outside of each classroom, vegetable gardens, a greenhouse, more kitchens available for people to can.

That’s what Blue Oven Kitchen’s goal is, to locate kitchens for people that they can can up their stuff and be certified to sell it and make money. Cottage Food Act is a little bit of help for a lot of people, to be able to sell their stuff without having a license as long as it’s sold at a farmer’s market or roadside stand directly to the consumer.

[Corporate grocery stores are] already changing. You look at Publix, or even Walmart, they have certified organic stuff. In Florida, if a Walmart’s located near farming towns, they’re required to buy x amount of product from the local farmers. More stores are getting organic sections and natural foods. Five years ago, no way.

We want to make sure this is running properly and get our kinks worked out with this store and, as we become more profitable, we want to start muddling somewhere else.

I’m just passionate, I like growing things and I like getting healthy things, food-wise, to people, so I love this job. Love growing my herbs.

See http://ufdc.ufl.edu/l/AA00038518/00001 for the full transcript of this interview.

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