Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday September 17th 2014

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Connecting the Dots

By Sarah McCartan

Let’s play a little game of “connect the dots.”

Let’s connect the dots from the scrumptious entrees boasting local flavors that are prepared in area restaurant kitchens and then beautifully plated and served on their restaurant tables, back to the source. While some area chefs work directly with farmers, for others, there is a common denominator when it comes to gathering local grub, an individual by the name of Sandy Veilleux.

As a part of her current operations at Flora Bama Farms, Veilleux acts as a pairing agent of sorts—pairing local farmers with area chefs. Veilleux eagerly shares her zest for and “love affair” with food—food that is fresh, traceable, and when at all possible, local.

“Maybe I over romanticize food, but the food tastes better when you know more about it,” she said. “And sometimes you just want to share it.”

Although Veilleux has been involved in the area food community as both chef and healthy food enthusiast for a substantial length of time, her relationship with Flora Bama Farms has been shorter lived, but no less prosperous.

In just a year’s time, not only has she strengthened her own ties with area farmers whose food she stocks in her market located on W. Cervantes, she has assisted in forging new relationships between farmers, chefs and fellow foodies.

Although Flora Bama Farms’ operations began close to home, within the confines of a 200-mile radius, Veilleux’s range has expanded. Above all, she fervently seeks out freshness, and the food that is brought in is done so with a confidence of quality.

“There are certain things we’re attached to as foodies,” she explained. Still, for these items Veilleux seeks to use connections she has made, ones that she trusts.

Just as I stepped onto the premises of Flora Bama Farms, a truck from Quincy, Fla. was delivering boxes upon boxes of mushrooms. Veilleux quickly guided me over to the unloading zone, where she pulled back a cardboard box lid to reveal the most voluptuous mushrooms I have ever laid eyes upon—mushrooms that had been picked just a few hours before.

For every farm they bring in food from that isn’t local, Veilleux seeks to balance it out with one that is.

Veilleux walked me through the market, stopping at each area of food, lighting up and bursting at the seams with information about the individual local farmers she features and interacts with on a regular basis, not only in regard to what and how much they are growing—how much heart and soul they are putting into it.

From trading with farmers operating with small-scale gardens with modest yields, to purchasing in bulk from others that span acres beyond acres, Veilleux has made a commitment to do a walk-through with buyers and is very clear to communicate with farmers to understand the levels of care taken and if at all, at what point any unnatural chemical touched the soil, or the crop—and in turn, communicate that information with those purchasing her products.

Veilleux is quick to admit that “Just because somebody says something is organic, doesn’t mean it is.”

“A lot of my farmers are conspiracy theorists—growing more responsibly than ‘organic,’” she said.

She went onto explain that many of the farmers have seen the negative side effect of chemicals on both their crops and their families in working with chemicals in years past, and therefore go above and beyond what is considered to be “certified organic” by technical federal label standards.

For some, technology has lent a hand in fostering sustainable environments.

“The concept of creating a sustainable environment changes everything,” said Veilleux. “When I visited Craine Creek Farm, I put on a different pair of shoes and the world stopped.”

Craine Creek Farm of Loxley, Ala. utilizes hydroponic technology in its greenhouse where they are able to grow lettuce year round. Craine Creek Farm was born out of a parents’ wish, thanks to a son’s commitment to bringing this desire into fruition. After scouring other successful hydroponic greenhouse setups in the Southeast, Micah Craine returned home to the area to help turn his family’s dream into a reality.

Although Craine Creek Farm has only been in operation for eight months, according to Micah Craine, they are able to produce 2200 heads of lettuce a week. They have different varieties depending on the season, and have plans to expand to grow other produce such as heirloom tomatoes.

Although the bulk of this lettuce is bought by a grocery company and Gulf Shores area restaurants their lettuce has made its way into markets including Flora Bama Farms, and has also been featured at Jackson’s Steakhouse. They have also sold to almost every grocery store in the area since their existence.

Although working with an entirely different setup—another name Veilleux utters repeatedly is Jeta Farms.

In nearby Elberta, Ala. Ed Frank of Jeta Farms has been farming for about 45 years. In addition to servicing restaurants in Baldwin County with his produce, you can find Ed at Palafox Market most every weekend, where his ingredients have been picked up by local chefs, and found their way to dishes at restaurants, including Carmen’s Lunch Bar.

Jeta Farms also offers community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, a growing appeal for those who are looking to ensure a steady supply of fresh, local produce grown for their household, without the personal labor. Community-supported agriculture is yet another food production and distribution system that directly connects farmers and consumers. In the fourth year of CSA boxes, Ed indicates receiving quite a positive response from the community.

Giving Back in the Backyard

Veilleux doesn’t simply operate from farm to her market or farm to chefs’ tables, or merely orchestrate between farmers. She operates and orchestrates from farm to anywhere—anywhere that opens their arms to fresh food.

“Everything we’ve worked so hard to do is flourishing,” she said. “We want it to translate into so many things.”

And it already has.

In May, Veilleux worked with farmers to supply food to Hangout Fest, serving fresh food to acts including Stevie Wonder. She is also part of the expanding national Slow Food Movement, whose Gulf Coast Chapter just hosted an “eat and greet” connecting chefs and farmers, further promoting the regional food economy.

She has assisted with ventures such as taking 1,000 lbs. of broccoli off a farmer’s hands and in turn, meeting a need at Manna Food Bank. She describes these acts as “giving back in your backyard.”

Ultimately, Veilleux encourages individuals to shop fresh and make a move to eat healthy, and to choose local, as much as possible.

“I love when people shop here [at Flora Bama Farms] but I love it even more when people are healthy no matter where they are. I don’t care where you do it—just do it.”

So long as Veilleux is helping to inspire and further a food movement—she and the area farmers—will keep moving to fulfill it.

Flora Bama Farms
6404 Mobile Hwy.
Mon. – Sat., 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Sunday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
facebook.com/florabamafarmsofpensacola