Local Spotlight: Wheeler Farm
By Jonathan Manning, Produce Manager
About 20 miles south of Chipley, Florida, Robert Wheeler makes his home, which consequently is also his farm. A family man, he’s raised four children on the farm, in addition to chickens, cows, horses, pigs, and some wonderful produce. Upon greeting the man, I get a distinct sense of pride, and for good reason. After touring the 20-plus acres of arugula, cilantro, dill, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, and snow peas (the list goes on!), I felt like I was touring the pinnacle of organic farms where variety, not mass production of select crops, is king. To hear Mr. Wheeler talk about his fruits and vegetables, you would think he’s referring to his own children!
After working for Publix for 11 years, Mr. Wheeler got fed up with the monotony and the urban sprawl of South Florida. In 1985 he made a drastic change, buying farmland and rededicating himself to the land. He started out small, carving his farm out of the woods and planting just enough to feed his family the first few years. As time went on he added more crops, more land, chickens, fruit trees, cows and horses. About six years ago, Robert decided to make the transition to a certified organic farm. The certification process is expensive: five continuous years of no artificial fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides used on the land; modification of facilities to adhere to organic standards; studying certification law; in addition to yearly inspections by certification agencies (costing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per year). As of last year, he is now a certified organic farmer, providing New Leaf Market with fresh, fantastic varieties of seasonal specialties roughly once every two weeks.
After finishing the tour, Mr. Wheeler invited our small New Leaf Market contingent back to his home where he grilled burgers made from his own cattle. We topped them with fresh sweet onions pulled from the ground earlier that day, some beautiful, crisp baby romaine from a hardy row still surviving the summer heat, and fresh green garlic, his specialty. As I thanked him for all he does and all he grows, I took a bite of the best burger I’ve ever had.