Greetings! This is the second in our "Success Stories" series, in which we catch up with some of our past volunteers and course participants and share what they've been up to since their time with us. We've been honored to host many amazing, inspiring, and inspired people over the years and lots of them have gone on to form businesses, projects, and social enterprises using their knowledge of permaculture. If you've ever studied or worked with us and have gone on to form your own initiative, we'd love to hear about it! Drop us a line and catch us up on what you've been up to.
Today we're hearing from Sarah (though we'll always think of you as Sarita!), whom we had the pleasure of hosting here at Atitlan Organics back in 2016 when she came to spend a couple months as a volunteer on the farm. Since then she went on to found St. Pete Ferments--the first and only business in the area which honors the traditional way of fermenting --in St. Petersburg, Florida. If you're ever in the neighborhood, check them out!
Atitlan Organics: Tell us a little about yourself and your permaculture inspired project.
Sarah: I was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Fla. My dad was an immigrant from Guatemala, and my mom is from South Carolina. They met at night school, where my mom taught my dad English.
Our first home was in south St. Pete. It was a small house and at that point in the 90s, it was a rough neighborhood as well. But what we lacked in fancy possessions, we thrived in locally grown food. I remember being a toddler, eating fresh fruit from the backyard. We had papaya, avocado, lychee, loquats, and carambola.
Through life, I was brought up in academia. My dad was a surgeon in Guatemala, and my mom was an English teacher in the local school system. I had pursued a public relations career for a few years after college, but then my desires changed. At this time (2013) I had begun fermenting kombucha, although I didn’t even realize at the time I was practicing fermentation. Once I learned there was a whole world of fermented foods I could create, I never stopped. After some time in corporate jobs, I quit everything and started traveling and working on organic farms.
I had never really met anyone else interested in fermentation until I began my travels. While working on farms, I saw the farm to ferment process. It was also the first time I had seen a fermentation business (Love Probiotics in San Marcos). I had been told by people for years that I should sell my ferments, but I always shrugged it off. Once I began researching other fermentation companies, I felt like it was something I could do.
Flash forward to 6 months of pure hell with the department of agriculture, I was finally legitimate and licensed to sell ferments. I spent my very last dollar getting my business together, which was both terrifying and thrilling all at once.
We’ve now been running for just over a year and share a kitchen space and retail store front near Downtown St. Pete. We make a variety of sauerkraut, kimchi, seasonal pickled veggies, kombucha and beet kvass. As part of creating awareness and implementing knowledge of fermentation, I also co-host the annual Florida Ferment Fest in the fall.
AO: What excites you about the work you do?
S: I literally get to bring life to food. We’re the only company in the Tampa Bay Area doing what we do, making fermented food and beverages the ancient way. When people find us, they get so excited that they finally found a product that resonates with them, both for flavor and for health.
But the thing that excites me most about this company is teaching workshops. To be able to extend this passion beyond just a product being sold has been so fulfilling. To be able to teach someone how to extend the life of their fruits or vegetables is just amazing. You can tell how grateful people are to learn this lost practice of fermentation.
AO: How do the ideas of permaculture live in your life and your enterprise?
S: Living in a metropolitan city definitely proposes some challenges. Our farm season has suffered because of hurricanes that hit us last fall, and we don’t have very many local farms to begin with. So sourcing locally in big quantities has been difficult, but we always source from local farms whenever possible. I’ve met a lot of growers along the way, and many of them have become good friends of mine. Despite the concrete jungle, I believe there is a great network of permies, farmers, and all types of ecologically like-minded people here in St. Pete.
One thing we really strive for is zero-waste. We compost all of our food scraps to a local school gardening non-profit, implement a bottle return program, and we only use compostables at markets. We live in the most densely populated county in Florida, so to reduce as much waste as possible is extremely important.
We also like to share knowledge about what’s in season and highlight the ebb and flow of the Florida farm season in order to support our local economy and local farm workers. A lot of people believe you can’t grow very much here, which just isn’t true. I like to tell the stories of the seeds, tend to my plants and propagate them, and have been fostering compost volunteers since I came back from Atitlan. Plants are amazing, and I want more people to realize that.
AO: What did you do with Atitlan Organics, and what did you get out of your time with us?
S: I volunteered for a couple months, learning about natural building, plant propagation, growing mushrooms, how to harvest chickens for meat, animal farming, how to be zero waste, how to compost… I could go on and on. Even though I didn’t do a PDC, I walked away with so much thanks to my time at Atitlan Organics. It is honestly one of the highlights of my life, one I always tell people.
AO: What advice would you give to someone who is dreaming of starting their own sustainable project or business?
S: Oh, ’tis what the world needs! There are so many needs when it comes to sustainability. Always reach higher and ask those who are in your sustainability circles to challenge you. Remember it’s easier to be negative than to be optimistic. So many people said I was silly for starting a business with no business background. I did not listen to them. It may take a while and it sounds cliche, but if you keep going just know that it will happen. Not all days will be easy, but having “stick-to-itness” will really take you far. There is nothing like waking up and doing exactly what you want to everyday, knowing that it’s going to improve the lives of those in your community.
AO: Is there anything else you'd like us to share?
S: One of my main points of focus for 2018 is addressing food justice issues in our city. More and more people are living with food insecurity, and it is a growing problem. And about 25% of children in this county are food insecure. It is especially bad because when kids are off for the summer, they are most vulnerable to be without food and not much is growing here during that time. We just have too many people living in food deserts, and it breaks my heart because many privileged people don’t even understand what exactly that entails.
We have many migrant workers within 150 miles of us who are not being treated fairly and are having a hard time earning citizenship and fair wages. These are issues that keep me awake at night, so I’m currently working on a publication platform to address this in our city as well as working with other local businesses and food justice groups to figure out what we can do as a business in helping this problem. I urge people to be conscious about these problems and offer solutions because it is something that is much bigger than us.
Bravo, Sarah! We admire the passion, energy, and hard work you put into making your dream a reality. Keep up with St. Pete Ferments on Facebook!
Studying Permaculture and Natural Building in Central America offers amazing opportunities to learn from indigenous cultures, rich natural patterns, and enormous diversity. Permaculture in Central America is representative of the edge effect or Edge Valuing Principle of Design. As one of the world’s centres of biodiversity, Guatemala attracts people from all over the world interested in learning through nature. Permaculture practices and can be seen in action via the surviving indigenous traditions that are common in Guatemala. Studying permaculture and natural building in Central America offers designers great opportunities to learn from diverse groups of people in incredibly diverse natural settings.