Cultivate

Paradise Farms

Jonnah Perkins
Jul 07, 2021 - 10 minutes read

Meet our farm partners David and Daniella from Paradise Farms in Florida.  David and Daniella are one of those couples that are so in tune that they finish each other's sentences and they bring a level of closeness and passion to everything they do at Paradise Farms. 

This story is the second in a series of insightful, editorial content we’re proud to publish. At FruitStand, we send out journalists and photographers to get the true story behind the food, connect you with the extraordinary farmers, and introduce you to their craft that beautifully blends art and science to produce something wonderful - and something worth sharing. 

Eating fruit is part of the job description

“We eat starfruit just like an apple right off the tree when it's perfectly ripe,”

David Laws, manager of Paradise Farms says when asked the best way to eat starfruit. Understanding the nuance of each fruit variety and when to harvest is one of the key skills of any fruit farmer, and with that comes eating a lot of fruit. 

David and his wife, Daniella Vargas, have been managing Paradise Farms in Homestead, FL, about an hour south of Miami, since 2019. Originally a five acre plot of avocados when the farm was founded in 1999, Paradise Farms has evolved into a 17 acre orchard and vegetable farm that thrives on working with the South Florida ecosystem by encouraging biodiversity in every aspect of the operation.

Bringing farm leadership full circle

David’s first farm experience was as a WWOOF-er at Paradise Farms in 2008. The Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an educational program that connects farms with emerging farmers to gain on-farm skills and learn about the organic farm movement. “Paradise was where I got my start in farming and within a month of working here, I knew that this was going to be my lifelong passion and I just stuck with it.”

In between working on farms in Oregon, Colorado, and California, Daniella and David completed a UC Santa Cruz, Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems program and gained the experience to manage a complex operation like Paradise Farms. “I've farmed all over the country and then at a lot of places with Daniella as a team and family. Then we got offered the opportunity to come back and manage Paradise. It's a full circle kind of a story for us,” says David about his path into agriculture.

10b Subtropical: understanding seasonality of a subtropical region

While much of our nation’s vegetable production peaks in the summer season, Southern Florida flips that upside down. Daniella explains how vegetables and fruit in her region favor different times of the year, “We are in South Florida and this is a 10b subtropical zone. Our vegetable season is from October to May. The summer is technically kind of our off-season because we're not growing as many vegetables. In the summer we focus on fruit: we just had lychees, we have mangoes, the starfruit is about to come on, longans in about a month, and then avocados.”

Challenges of farming in South Florida: building soil and managing moisture

The climate that makes it possible for year round production also comes with obstacles from the South Florida ecosystem. Soil is shallow and water is abundant - sometimes too abundant. “The water table is five to nine feet. If you drill a hole, you're going to hit water, it’s right there. With that comes a lot of molds, mildews and humidity-based problems, especially in the summer,” says David. 

Paradise Farms is one of the few organic farms in it’s microregion, so much of the farming strategy is innovative and self-taught, “There's not a ton of reference material down here especially based on organic practices. For a lot of things, you're just making it up as you go along or trying to find somebody who's already done it,” David remarks about their unique situation. Because Paradise Farm is certified organic, utilizing regenerative soil building practices is a vital part of the ongoing work of sustaining a productive farm. “There are farming communities, but there's not a huge organic farming community. It's like you're speaking another language.”

For a lot of things, you're just making it up as you go along or trying to find somebody who's already done it.

David on teaching the community about the organic difference

The best way I can get people to understand organic is to actually show them. I love showing people our soil. When you open up the soil, it's full of life. That's totally different from any farm if you drove across the street or down the road, those soils are dead. That's the difference I’m trying to teach people about regenerative organic agriculture - it’s the soil. A lot of times it’s just teaching about how biology works, how the natural world feeds us and what everyone’s part is in it. It's a lot of education but I love it.”

A whole ecosystem approach

In 1900 Florida was home to a half million people. Today over 21 million humans live in Florida, not counting the tourism industry. The wildlife that once inhabited this wild peninsula has experienced catastrophic habitat loss. Paradise Farms sees farming with their natural surroundings as not only part of a production strategy but also a philosophical imperative. 

Daniella lists off the birds and reptiles that pass through the farm, “We have a beautiful pond system on the farm that attracts all kinds of wading birds, turtles and reptiles. The native snakes, egrets, herons, hawks, iguanas, and tegus are so beautiful. I love watching them come in and just hang out by the water looking for the fish.”

Not only growing food, but supporting habitat for Florida’s diverse wildlife creates balance where so many urbanization and agriculture projects have stripped it away. David and Daniella believe agriculture and wildlife can and should co-exist.

Interplanting and orcharding as an evolving experiment

With the wild visitors and pressures of weather, David sees each day, week, season and year as his palette on which to work with the variables that nature throws his way. “It's always an experiment. We're always trying out new things to interplant in our orchards. We do turmeric in between a lot of the trees as well as ginger. I'm going to be planting vanilla soon. I want to do vanilla on the tree bark up the trunks so you've got a permanent trellis for these vanilla orchids. We have a lot of herbs and edible flowers. Also tropical oregano and pigeon peas for nitrogen fixation.”

David explains how we can change the food system through exposure to new flavors

“There's so much good food that is just under-appreciated. If we can do more education, outreach and get people to taste more foods, we know they're going to love it and then they're going to want to know more. The more they know, the more they learn, the more they are attached to nature. If we could get the whole world doing that, that would be solving our way out of problems.”

There's so much good food that is just under-appreciated.

Building a home for bees

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, every third bite of our food depends on pollinators. Crops that depend on pollination are five times more valuable than those that do not. Paradise Farms is habitat for wild bees and will soon be home to on-farm hives.

“Pollinators really help with fruit set. We also just want to hold space for them. They're under attack on every side by development and pesticides. A lot of bees go beyond just pollination services that they provide. Many bees are predators of other insects. There are farms that spray every day or at least weekly to keep pests down. And we're not one of those farms. We really rely on those predatory pests and purposely plan to encourage them,” says David on the benefits of creating a sanctuary for bees. He goes on to say how this works in practice, “We have biodiversity strips. In the center of the annual vegetable rows, we save three beds to break up production. These are all pollinator plants. We like anything with a big beautiful flower that's going to be there for a long time.”

Daniella sees the presence of bees as a critical element of having a healthy, prolific fruit farm, “For us it's vital to have bees as part of our farm. Especially a farm where most of the 17 acres are in fruit trees, it's very important for us to make sure we have the space for all these bees to come in, hang out in these flowers and all these trees.”

ARKIN, FWANG TUNG, KARI and the imperative of getting starfruit fresh from the farm

Starfruit, or carambola, is native to southeast Asia and was introduced to the American agriculture landscape by the botanist and explorer, David Fairchild. Starfruit is best when ripened on the tree because it stops producing sugar after it is harvested. For this reason Daniella likes her customers to have their starfruit within a few days, “It ships well if we send out our starfruit within one or two days of harvest. If we picked them before they were ripe everyone would miss out on the sweetness.”

“Our varieties are arkin, fwang tung, and kari,” says David. And not only does the fruit look cool, the trees are beautiful as well, “They're very interesting fruit beyond the shape and the weird pseudo citrus flavor. They've got a funny flowering habit. They'll flower right off the bark, they'll flower on the tips of the branches, they'll flower on almost any part of the tree and produce fruit. They have a big heavy fruit set and they pump out fruit for a lot of the year.”

Raising a child in a tropical fruit paradise

When asked about the most rewarding part of her lifestyle as a farmer, Daniella points to her role as a farmer-mother, On a super personal level, the fact that my 18 month old son can recognize different fruit trees and name them, that's life affirming that I'm doing the right thing. To have an 18 months old that already pretty much knows all the edible fruit on the farm and can name them all is incredible.”

On a super personal level, the fact that my 18 month old son can recognize different fruit trees and name them, that's life affirming that I'm doing the right thing."

David sees their son, Davi’s, early exposure to agriculture and botanical wonderment as a lifelong extended family that will always give him a sense of place, “I love that our son is already so tied into all these trees. It kind of ties you to your local area, keeps you connected. There's folks out there who couldn't identify any of these plants. It's like getting to know old friends. The more intimate and the more you get to know each individual tree, the deeper the connection.” 

Solving a puzzle every day

The work of a farmer is an incredibly complex job. From agronomy, business management, educating the market, engineering, plant pathology, and all the trades in between, farmers also are constantly improvising with what the natural world throws their way. David sees this as a riddle to solve. “For me, farming, especially biodynamic farming, is an intense challenge and you’ve got to have the right mindset. I look at each problem that pops up as a puzzle to solve rather than something that's working against me.” This works for David because of his love for spontaneous challenge. “I look at each day like, how are we going to tackle this? What are we going to do? What can we bring in? What benefit can we encourage to deal with this problem? That's the mindset I try to cultivate in myself. It's the most rewarding work that there is. I would never do anything else. I love this work. Being out in the most beautiful garden of Eden every day. If you can keep that gratitude practice open, keep that going, it really is just the best life that I can imagine.”

“I look at each day like, how are we going to tackle this? What are we going to do? What can we bring in? What benefit can we encourage to deal with this problem? 

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