Darrin and Jodi Swank stay busy growing vegetables under shade, supplying their Community Supported Agriculture customers with high-quality produce. A pair of the unlikeliest farmers you’ll ever run into, the couple has been working their place at Loxahatchee, Fla., since 1999.
Neither grew up on a farm but both had a passionate interest in making things grow. Darrin, whose father was a Washington, D.C.-area police officer, moved from Maryland to Florida in 1990.
“I had no clue I was going to do this — not at all,” he says. “I did notice the agriculture going on here, and it seemed local farmers were getting murdered on prices. I heard one bad story after another about it.”
After meeting Jodi in 1992, they began wondering how food might be produced more competitively on small acreage. They began reading everything they could find about hydroponics, and what they heard about hydroponically produced leaf lettuce particularly impressed them. They visited Walter Ross, the Lake Worth-based owner of Farmhouse Tomatoes, who grows hydroponic greenhouse heirloom tomatoes.
“That was the biggest part of my research,” Darrin says. “I loved what he was doing, but I didn’t want to follow him or compete with him. So, I decided to concentrate on leaf lettuce and develop my own system.”
Took three years to set up system
It took three years to set up his system and get plants growing. At first he focused on lettuce, arugula and basil. “My idea was that I wanted to work directly with distributors,” he says. “Well, I learned a boatload. For six months I tried it that way. I’d sit there at the distributor while they checked in my product. They demanded a perfect product from me, but shipped a garbage product that had been sitting around for a long time.
“I saw that we needed to eliminate that step. I knew I could produce a high quality product and sell it direct to consumers. The distributors were all about numbers — at the end of the day, it was just a business to them. They had no passion for it. I said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to go around those guys.’”
That led him to try to appeal to local upscale chefs.
“I picked the crazy stuff to grow, the specialty stuff. I figured chefs would be into it. I had 35 products, and invited chefs out to see what we were doing. One started buying, and from there, it just took off. Chefs from Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties got interested; anybody doing farm-to-table got interested in what we had.”
Next, Community Supported Agricultures began making news around the country and the Swanks thought the idea could work for them They partnered with Whole Foods stores in Palm Beach Gardens, Boca Raton, Wellington and Fort Lauderdale, where CSA customers could pick up their boxes filled with Swank Farm vegetables.
“Everything in our CSA box comes from our farm,” Darrin says. “That’s the way I always wanted it to be, and now we’re diversified enough that we can do that. We kept expanding into different programs of produce production, and people enjoy what they’re getting.”
The Swanks even grow herbs, ranging from chives and oregano to thyme and dill. Lettuce remains a mainstay, and they turn out 20 different types of it. They even sell Swiss chard mixes, buckwheat and edible flowers.
Goal is to keep diversifying
“Our goal is to keep diversifying,” he says. “We’re not in it to blow up to be a $6 million operation. That never really has been the goal. I think when you do that, you lose the edge on quality — and quality is what we’re after.”
They keep local consumer interest high by hosting popular on-farm dinners that are booked to capacity. “We want to build that part of the business,” Jodi says. “Diners pay top dollar for that food on the plate, and they have fun doing it. The margin is off the charts — plus, everyone enjoys it. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t want to get narrow-minded and just chase money. It’s diversification like this that will help us stay around for decades.”
They promote dinners on the farm’s Facebook page, and interest is so high that they may put on as many as six dinners in 2013. They never advertise, but are involved in community events that raise the farm’s visibility. “Promotion is different from advertising,” Jodi says “We donate to charities and local events. We enjoy helping the community any way we can. If the media picks up on it, that comes free.”
Local people know Jodi, particularly, because she sells the farm’s products at a West Palm Beach greenmarket each Saturday.
“A lot of those people come over from Palm Beach and are looking for quality. Being there each Saturday, I get to know them and can talk about how to prepare meals, that sort of thing. Nobody can sell my produce the way I can.”
Helped gain respect
With all this going on, they still emphasize their work with chefs.“That has helped us gain respect,” Darrin says. “One chef took a chance on us, then others said, ‘That’s incredible, where are you getting that?’ That’s how we built relationships.
“We’re consistent; we produce high quality stuff; we’re honest — and if you’re that way, reputable people want to do business with you. Chefs are definitely kind of crazy; they are passionate about what they’re doing. But, we’re passionate about what we’re doing, too, so we can all understand each other.”
The Swanks personally check each box leaving the farm. “If it’s not to my standards, it doesn’t leave the place,” Darrin says. “If anyone has any problem at all with what they get from us, they only have to call Jodi and we will replace the product. It’s that simple.”
Visitors notice right away that the Swank farm is different. The shade house production sets it apart from most others in the area.
“When we started, we knew we needed some kind of protective cover,” Darrin says. “Guys in New Zealand were using this kind of shade house, and we liked it. The cost was about one-fifth that of a plastic greenhouse. I felt confident if we had a hurricane, the wind would go through it. Even if we lost it, I’d rather replace a 50 cents per foot product than a $2.50 per square foot greenhouse plastic product.”
“The cover reduces the light level, and that makes the leaf so much more tender because it’s not being hammered with UV light. It expands the season, too. We can go from September until July 4. When it rains, it’s not as heavy; the rain droplets become more of a mist.”
They keep insect problems to a minimum by releasing beneficial predator insects for natural control. Some crops, like sweet corn, tomatoes and pepper, which need full sun, do grow outside.