Agri Leader

Getting natural

Organic farmer Sal Varri has a “let it be” philosophy. His 20-acre plot of land hosts more than two acres of crop fields, an outdoor plant nursery, dozens of fruit trees, a composter, his trailer and two converted vehicles (a bus and a van) that serve as guest housing for volunteers. Varri (pronounced “very”) Green Farm is also home to anything that wants to live there, according to Varri, who sported dreadlocks and a wide-brimmed hat. “You plant many things. You allow everything.” “I have every single bug imaginable, including the beneficials,” he explained. He also said he’s found deer, fox, turtles and frogs in the field. “My garden is a living ecosystem in and of itself,” said Varri. A first generation farmer originally from Fort Lauderdale, Varri started the farm in 2003 with his girlfriend at the time. Varri already owned the land, and the couple, who were living in North Carolina, were hoping to plant some crops and head back up north. “We figured the rain would take care of it,” said Varri.
But they quickly realized there was more work to running a small farm and decided to stay in Florida full-time. They installed a drip irrigation system and set to work. Luckily, the plot of land is located on rich, black soil due to thousands of years of lake overwash before the 35-foot-tall Lake Okeechobee berm was built in 1933; Varri has never had to fertilize. He doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides either, electing to grow his produce organically, diversifying and accepting that the produce might not be perfect and he’ll lose some, but what he gets will be natural, nutritious and free of chemicals. “We are polluting our air, water and soil. And when we pollute the plants and food that we are eating, we are thereby polluting ourselves,” Varri remarked. “You don’t have a choice anymore,” said Varri, referring to corporate farms that produce the genetically, chemically enhanced foods that end up in grocery stores and are not labeled to show what’s been done to them. “I stand here on my little dinky piece of land and try to teach as much as possible. I want to perk people up,” Varri said. This self-taught organic farmer feels strongly that people should know where their food comes from. A bumper sticker on his van reads “Who’s Your Farmer?” and Varri makes it a point that every one of his customers knows who he is, what he grows and what the practices are on his farm. He only sells at farmers markets in Martin, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, and has turned down offers from high-end restaurants, including the Breakers, who wanted him to grow organic produce exclusively for their kitchens. “I’m not here to make a profit,” stated Varri. Instead, he is interested in educating the public about small farms, organic farming and growing your own food. He runs tours on the farm through the Slow Food movement, teaches classes to kids at schools and churches, and has put in six community gardens, earning him the Martin County Conservation Alliance Outstanding Achievement Award. But Varri shrugs his shoulders at accolades. What turns him on is when a child comes back to him with produce he grew from seeds Varri gave him a few months ago. “That’s when I know I’ve done my job,” he said. Varri’s largest field is now fallow until planting time in August, but it will produce a variety of produce, including 15 different types of lettuce, 12 different varieties of radishes, Asian greens, onions, potatoes, okra, five different colors of beets, five different colors of carrots, cherry tomatoes, squash, cucumber and much more. As summer approaches, Varri has a plant nursery — a small garden with onions, peppers, beans and a few other plants — and what he calls a “rain garden.” The rain garden is a small plot of land where he “just threw out some old seeds” to see what would grow. The garden isn’t tended; rather, Varri carefully picks through the weeds to surprise himself with what turns up. Today, he unearthed a pretty good amount of spinach, a radish, and some lettuce. Another section of the rain garden uses the technique of planting corn, beans and squash in a symbiotic trio. The low squash plants keep the weeds down around the corn stalks, which provide scaffolding for the beans, Varri explained. Fruit trees dot the landscape, too, in familiar citrus as well as more exotic loquats, surinam cherries, wax jambo, cashew apples, black sapote (also known as chocolate pudding fruit) and more. During the season, Varri will host willing volunteers who want to learn about organic farming. He enjoys experimenting with different plants and techniques, even building a circuit board with fruits and vegetables that generates energy. It makes enough electricity to charge a cell phone, said Varri, though he admitted with a smile that he doesn’t own one. He doesn’t have a TV either, but has used some of his spare time to do the theoretically impossible — grow asparagus in Florida. “Monotony will kill you,” he quipped. Varri said he loves living on his fertile piece of land, seeing and hearing nature, watching the circle of life of plants and providing healthy, fresh produce to his customers. “It’s about me serving my community the best way I can,” he said.