After losing their jobs, the Marandos find farm living is the life for them

Chelsea (Staten Island, New York)Chelsea (Manhattan, New York)FamilyFort LauderdaleRestaurants

Sweat dripping down her neck, kiwis in each hand, Chelsea Marando dashes to the crooked baskets of fresh corn. She adjusts the bins, then picks up an ear and peels back one of its leaves. The white kernels sparkle like pearls.

"Isn't that gorgeous," she says.

She looks up, on to the next idea. "I'm gonna go feed my pigs. I wonder where they are?"

It's Saturday morning at Marando Farms, a one-acre farmers' market and nursery improbably wedged between Broward General Medical Center and the Florida East Coast Railway tracks in Fort Lauderdale.

Steps away from customers, hundreds of tiered pots hang with vegetables in rows labeled "Tomato Terrace" and "Pepper Parkway." Eggplants peek out from their leaves at ankle level, sprouting from the lowest containers. Lettuce and herb seed beds float on top of a small pond, waiting to be transplanted. The sticky air smells of dirt.

Around the corner, enclosures hold two pigs (Templeton and Rumplestiltskin), a few chickens, turtles, ducks and rabbits that were abandoned on the property. In front, tables form a space for the farmers' market that Chelsea, 38, and her husband, Fred, 45, host every weekend.

It's hard to believe that Marando Farms is just a mile south of the retail and restaurant strip on Las Olas Boulevard.

Tending to it all is a full-time job and more for the Marandos, who have been cultivating their plants, picking up local produce from other farms to sell, and working their own market for almost a year.

"Our goal is for people to understand where their food comes from and how hard farmers work to get it to them," says Chelsea. "Yes, you can go to Publix, but you'll get from huge commercial growers. When our zucchini is in full bloom, why are we getting it from Honduras? You don't know that farmer."

Just a year and a half ago, life was a lot different for the Marandos. Both worked for large construction companies - she sold construction materials, he was a superintendent. They drove a Hummer. Their son, Max, now 31/2, went to daycare.

Then they both lost their jobs within months of each other, leaving them with no income, no health insurance and a toddler.

Shopping at Whole Foods quickly seemed impossible, and staying healthy more important than ever.

"It was instantaneous," says Chelsea, who is expecting her second child in April. "At that moment, when you don't have that quarter-million-dollar income anymore and you're on unemployment - we were smart enough that we weren't going to throw away our life savings."

They had already traded in their Hummer for two pickup trucks and were leasing a piece of land for a landscaping business. They soon gave up mowing lawns and cashed in their 410(k)s.

Marando Farms was born in October 2009.

They used to spend $150 a week for groceries. Now, everything they eat is from their farm or bartered from other farmers. The change from what their family ate two years ago is striking, Chelsea says.

"It was different because I could afford Whole Foods. We used to dine out. We had more abundance and more waste, a lot more waste. ... It is viable, growing your own food. For my family, it works."

Farming does come somehwat naturally to the Marandos. Fred grew up on a family farm in Indiana, and Chelsea's family owned a livestock auction in western New York. She learned about hydroponics and vertical growing at the University of Florida, where she studied environmental science.

There are other farmers' markets, but the Marandos are doing much more than selling produce.

"Not only are we growing our own food," says Chelsea, "but we're also educating people about the importance of food."

Where else but Marando Farms can kids see that hens lay eggs, tomatoes grow out of the ground and pigs stink?

"A 14-year-old girl came here and she got so excited, and said, 'I've had one of these before!' and chomps a bite out of it. It was a bell pepper, but kids don't know what this stuff is," Chelsea says. "We pull carrots out of the ground to show them and they say, 'Eww!' "

Marci Grady, a teacher at Trinity Lutheran Academy in Fort Lauderdale, says she's seen that exact phenomenon, and now wants to use the farm as a teaching tool. She hopes to bring her class to the farm.

"It really bugs me when I bring a grapefruit in for a snack and kids have no idea what it is," Grady says.

Word of the urban farm has spread, and at least 100 people stopped by on a recent Saturday. They come for what's grown on Marando Farms and other area farms, but also for locally-produced organic granola, hummus and breads.

Their efforts are one part of the eat-local movement, which has gained ground in the last couple of years. According to the National Restaurant Association's Chef Survey, the No. 1 food trend for 2010 is locally-grown produce.

"Five, six, 10 years ago, you would've been considered a weirdo," for even thinking about locally-grown food, says Fred. "Now everybody does."

Kathy Diaz, holding a basket full of tomatoes, green beans and pineapples, says she makes an effort to buy local, though she noted the kale she was buying was from Oregon. "They have good deals on tropical fruit, and the kids are really excited to see a pig in the middle of Fort Lauderdale," she says.

Come October, the market will feature only locally-grown produce. Right now, much of what they sell is from farms up north. "We'll be feeding them in the winter time," says Chelsea.

The Marandos are hoping to expand by turning a vacant part of the property into a community garden, where various groups can tend plots of their own. And Chelsea hopes to become certified with Florida Agriculture in the Classroom, a program through which she could visit local schools and talk about farming.

"It's really about a community coming together," she says. "Whether it's the whole state or a couple local farmers - taking care of ourselves."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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