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Suncoast co-op garden expands

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Published:   |   Updated: January 2, 2014 at 02:57 PM

NEW PORT RICHEY — On the half-acre farm behind West Pasco Habitat for Humanity, Eric Stewart pulled up a handful of weeds from a nearby garden bed. He walked over and tossed it into the chicken coop where a few hens clucked with anticipation.

“Here you go girls,” Stewart said. The chickens scrambled to bite into their treat.

“The chickens love the weeds from our garden,” Stewart said. The chickens, one of many new additions to the garden, produce eggs, eat cleared weeds and aren’t as smelly or noisy as some might think.

Stewart has grown up with gardening. His grandfather, an immigrant from Greece and current Holiday resident, was never without a garden, chickens and fruit trees. He instilled in Stewart a love for gardening and expectation that communities should have access to knowledge and resources to grow their own food.

Now, Eric is one of dozens of movers and shakers with the Suncoast Co-op working to empower West Pasco residents to grow and sell their own food. Aside from a growing network of local backyard growers, the co-op maintains a half acre of land behind the Habitat for Humanity Restore that they tend to four days a week called “Kinship Urban Farm.”

The garden, which began three years ago, has added aquaponics system to raise tilapia, a type of fish, as well as water drip irrigation system to decrease water waste. The habitat recently asked the co-op to help build gardens at every home they build locally in the future to help break the cycle of food insecurity and poverty.

“People in need of these homes are also using food stamps,” Stewart said. “You can break them off the cycle so they can take care of themselves”

For those who want to learn small-scale gardening at their own homes, on Jan. 11 from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., Stewart will hold a class at the Restore, 4131 Madison St., on how to grow food anywhere to earn money. Using the Small Plot Intensive system, Stewart will instruct participants on how to earn money out of as little as a 2 foot x 25 foot area to an acre or more of property to earn income from sustainable organic agriculture.

The class costs $60, or $30 with payment of the annual $25 fee to be a co-op member, but no one is ever turned away because of money.

“If you cannot afford the cost, message or talk with us and we will work with you in exchange for volunteering,” Stewart posted on the Facebook event page.

Some of the topics Stewart will cover in the class include: composting, vermiculture and a variety of ways to grow create free; planting seasons; where to get seeds for free or cheap; pest control, watering, natural fertilizers ; and where to sell produce.

Stewart has been a gardener for the past seven years in Florida and received a permaculture design certification in 2011. In 2010, he helped consult on converting half-acre of parking lot behind the West Pasco Habitat Kinship Urban Farm now where the class will be hosted.

Everything harvested and sold from the garden nets a portion of the proceeds to Habitat for Humanity, which uses the money to build decent, affordable housing for families. Members of the co-op receive 10 percent off what they buy for personal consumption.

For questions or more information, call (727) 271-2754 or email suncoastcoop@gmail.com.

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