A farm waiting to be found
When Arab traders first sailed upon the island that is currently known as Sri Lanka, in the Indian Ocean, they called it Serendib. This name later gave birth to the word serendipity, the chance encounters or unexpected occurrences that have no explanation other than fate. And that is how Sri Lankan fruit farmer, Wimal Suaris, found his farm in south Florida, serendipitously.
“Our farm here, happened in a way by accident because we were not really looking for a farm at that time, I was looking for a different kind of property,” remembers Wimal. “One day I was looking at real estate listings, and this came up. I told my wife, let's go see it. We put in an offer the same day we saw the farm. So it also has serendipity, so that's why we call it Serendib.”
The ten acre Serendib Farm is home to over 100 varieties of rare fruit and flower trees. When Wimal and his wife, Elita, first began farming on this land 12 years ago, there were avocado and lychee trees, many of which remain productive. The farm now includes over 700 individual fruit trees. Wimal and Elita sell their fruit on-farm, through wholesale accounts, and through their partnership with FruitStand.
Inspired by botanist, David Fairchild
In the 1890’s, American explorer-botanist, David Fairchild, traveled the globe bringing back seeds and cuttings of over 200,000 varieties of fruits, grains and vegetables. As a sort of an Indian Jones of edible plant foods, Fairchild introduced the United States Department of Agriculture to a new era of what the American gastronomic culture could look like.
Similarly, Wimal’s energy and curiosity for searching for rare fruits to propagate on his farm, is bringing diversity and variety to fruit eaters. While some people may be looking for the nostalgia of their foods from home, others want to feel a sense of adventure that they can’t find in the grocery store.
Much of the collection of plants that Fairchild curated is now kept at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which is very close to Serendib Farm. The Kampong, which is the garden and former estate of Fairchild, is a heritage collection of his adventures in edible plants. This garden has been very inspiring to Wimal and he has been given clippings from various fruit trees to bring into his own orchard at Serendib Farm.
Bringing diversity to a starkly minimal fruit market
The Cavendish banana is still America’s most popular fruit. Nearly all of the bananas found in grocery stores are grown in equatorial Latina America. In fact, more than half of the fresh fruit Americans buy is imported from other countries, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Center. Imports have outpaced domestically grown fruit for over a decade.
“With avocados, most people have tasted only Hass, the little avocado. We have about 15 varieties of avocados. And each one has a unique taste, color, texture and shape. It's not just the taste, but you see it with your eyes, and you smell it. It’s the full experience,”
says Wimal about the nuance between varieties. Wimal and Elita have created a niche in their fruit production that works outside of the commercial packing houses. By growing fruit varieties that don’t compete with the small handful of varieties that are widely available in the grocery story, they are offering a more adventurous approach to fruit.
Wimal on creating a cultural connection through rare fruit
“We have a lot of people that visit the farm who have traveled in Asia or who have come from those countries. They are familiar with these fruits and they are always looking for them. Sometimes there are three generations visiting together: the grandparents, the parents and their kids. The grandparents grew up with these fruits, the middle aged people might be familiar but they don't quite remember the fruit because they were small. And then the young children are being introduced to the foods of their grandparents.”
Farming in the South Florida pine rockland ecosystem
Sitting just 6-15 feet above sea level, the pine rockland eco-region, may not look strikingly different from the adjacent terrain, when natural vegetation is stripped away. But from a geological perspective, it’s an entirely different world underground. The subterranean limestone outcropping that stretches from Cuba, the Bahamas and up to parts of South Florida created an elevated pine forest ecosystem that is starkly different from the surrounding marshland.
Wimal explains how even large amounts of precipitation don’t create flooding in his area, “This area has very little soil, maybe about six inches and below that there's rock. And my elevation is about 11 or 12 feet above sea level. So even if you have any major rain event, we don't see any standing water, it drains so fast we don't have a problem.”
Without much topsoil or residual water, Wimal and Elita have created a mulching system to build soil to support their fruit trees, “Any trees that we cut in our farm get turned into mulch and we put it around the other trees. So that gives you some nutrients and also it's a barrier for the weeds while retaining moisture.”
The challenges of growing fruit in South Florida
The climate in Southern Florida can be extreme. The impacts of Hurricane Irma in 2017 had an estimated $2 billion of damage to the Florida agroecosystem, according to University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences. When tropical storms make landfall, strong winds can damage orchards by toppling trees, who’s root systems are shallow because they cannot penetrate bedrock.
Wimal and Elita were fortunate that Irma didn’t do too much damage to the majority of their trees. “Hurricane Irma lasted almost 24 hours. It was not very strong, but it was back and forth, back and forth for a full day. I think about 200 trees went down during the hurricane, some of the smaller plants. I managed to upright about 80 plants but I had to take out some of the trees. Since then we haven't had any more hurricanes. But the problem is in June when the hurricane season starts, that's when all our major crops come in.”
Another weather pattern that keeps Florida farmers tuned into the forecast is cold. While Florida is known for it’s extremely hot conditions, overnight freezing temperatures do happen. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate change is creating more frequent polar vortex weather patterns that cause more extreme temperature fluctuations.
Wimal talks about the challenges of having very small trees during a cold snap: “If you have a cold front, well, when the trees are big, they are okay. But when they are small, like the new trees that I planted, they are very susceptible to cold because they come from truly tropical climates. So they cannot sustain those cold temperatures for more than a few hours. When it goes down to the 20s, if the plant is very small, it'll die. So it is a challenge at the beginning.”
The paradox of using ice to fight cold
The freezing conditions that Wimal and Elita face are often the result of dew drops turning to ice when the lowest overnight temperature hits the plant. But there is a way that farmers can preempt that process by using more water. Wimal explains how frost irrigation works: “If it is around freezing, like 30 degrees, you can protect the plants by running the sprinklers. So what happens is our sprinkler system throws out water, and then the water freezes. And when the water freezes it gives out some heat, which keeps the plant at 32 degrees and it doesn't go down below that.” Frost irrigation only works within a narrow window of cold temperatures but these are often the conditions that Wimal and Elita experience in the rare cold events on their farm.
Cooking with fruit
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Wimal’s relationship with fruit was both as raw, sweet snacks but also cooked into traditional Sri Lankan dishes. He and Elita strive to reach their customers both through fresh fruit and as well as through offering fruits that can be cooked.
Wimal talks about the versatility of mango:
“We grew up with a lot of mangoes and we always cooked mango. Green mangoes always make a great curry, and also green mangoes can be used for salads. Sometimes we just eat it with salt and pepper as a snack.”
The largest tree-borne fruit in the world, the jackfruit, also gets Wimal excited when it comes to cooking, “We have plenty of jackfruit. A lot of plant-based people are coming here looking for jackfruit. This is a huge fruit, it can grow up to 70 pounds. Inside that you have these yellow pods that you can cook. I cook them with curry and coconut milk. It's very, very sweet so you can eat it at any stage of maturity. There are so many ways of cooking jackfruit.”
For the joy of fruit
Eating food from the source is often lauded for the health benefits. But Wimal wants his customers to see health as a wonderful byproduct of enjoying fruit as it is intended to be eaten: fresh from the farm where it was cared for and loved by the farmer.
“What I don't try to do is, which is the opposite of what a lot of people who are selling these foods often do, is to give a nutritional content, or saying that it's medicinal. I think other people who sell fruit hype it up too much. But, take it easy, it's just a fruit. Eat it and be happy about it. It's not going to cure cancer for you. At least I don't think so.”
Whole raw plant foods vary so much in nutritional content. The stage of ripeness, the variety of fruit, and the handling process all impact how the fruit will interact with each person’s unique biology.
Wimal wants his customers to savor his fruit and notice all of the beautiful differences between varieties, “Each mango variety has a different flavor. Some of them are like lemony, others are very sweet, others have a spicy taste. So each mango is like a wine. Each mango will have a different unique taste.”
The farmer as the collector of precious fruits
No matter how long it takes and how far Wimal has to look, his collector spirit gives him energy to find rare fruit trees, “I've always been a collector so I look for rare things that I can add to my collection. If I can find something that somebody else has that I don't have, I'll try to get it.”
Creating ideal growing conditions and cultivating a community around their unique orchard is what has allowed Wimal and Elita to thrive as farmers. They are also making a home for the foods they grew up eating.
“I have one mango variety from Sri Lanka which I grew from a seed. I also have other varieties that I have collected from whatever country I can: Thailand, India, Jamaica, Trinidad. All of those countries have different varieties of mangoes,” says Wimal.
The more we can see farmers as keepers of precious foods, as a gateway to the past and the future of food, the more our farmers can have a platform to keep these foods alive.