Fort Lauderdale Urban Farmer Fights Aphids and Apathy on an Empty Lot

Michael Madfis refused to give up.

He used to work as an architect, overseeing a team on large projects. His wife was an interior designer. Both of them made a living off South Florida's housing bubble, and when it burst, they suffered. He lost his job, his house, "everything." Legally blind, he couldn't drive a car. He needed a new start, a revolution. So he started a farm.

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On a low-traffic street in the Sistrunk neighborhood, where single moms walk with kids in bathing suits and out-of-work men drink beers at 9 in the morning, in a lot that used to harbor drug deals between housing-project residents, Madfis laid down some black tarps, filled hundreds of permeable bags with rich soil, and began tending his crops.

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He secured the land through a deal with the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, which owns the lot. "We teamed up a year ago," says Madfis. "They embraced the idea that maybe these homes could become a farming community. They want to integrate more plantings into new construction."

Along with some friends, Madfis took a concept that had all but disappeared from Broward County -- using land for food, not houses -- and injected it into a place where Florida's fast-paced convenience economy had failed to provide comfortable lives for its residents.

Still, like many entrepreneurs trying to make it within the confines of status-quo-friendly Fort Lauderdale, Madfis has run into zoning issues and had a few spats with the City Commission. The problem? Agricultural zoning doesn't exist in this part of the state. If he had come in and asked for permission before he did this, progress would be unlikely. "One of the reasons we did it sort of sneaky was we wanted something on the ground to show them," he says.

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Madfis lives in nearby Rio Vista and gets a driver to drop him off at the lot on NW 12th Court in Sistrunk every morning. He says that even in his nearby, manicured neighborhood, a project like this wouldn't be possible. Too much pesticide and fertilizer. Here, on land marked by neglect, there are no such worries. Honeybees swarm to pollinate lettuce flowers; ladybugs chase invasive aphids across leaves.

"Hey," Madfis shouts at an iridescent blackbird pecking between the plants, "get out of here." He chases it away. An owl decoy hangs from the lot's only source of shade, a scraggly tree. As he talks, Madfis stands in the shifting shade of its trunk to avoid the hot morning sun. He saves money by avoiding pesticides and fertilizers; this all-natural approach also fosters biodiversity. "I allowed a few [planter] bags to go bad and get hit by aphids," he says. This attracted predator insects, like ladybugs, that would patrol his plants for free.


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Madfis has about half of the lot filled with plants, which he estimates will yield 600 pounds of arugula alone and could gross $50,000 a year. He's tried to sell the produce to local restaurants that market to "farm to table" tastes, but aside from some brief interest from Market 17, he hasn't made much headway. The sell requires convincing restaurateurs that superlocal foods, grown within walking distance by local residents, is worth a premium of, say, a quarter per pound.

He's had more luck teaming up with local youth programs to teach kids about food. "Some of the kids thought that carrots grew on a tree," he says. He had them pick vegetables and mix them together into a salad, which they enjoyed.

While the project seems to have brought a measure of interracial harmony to the mostly black neighborhood, the farm still doesn't have the full attention of its closest neighbors (although the roof of an adjacent housing block drains into cisterns for irrigation). Madfis grows collard greens, a Sunday-dinner staple in many black households.

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Callaloo, a tough, leafy vegetable featured in Caribbean cooking, appeals to local ethnic tastes and is able to weather the stinking-hot South Florida summers. Other good bets for the climate: calabash, cantaloupes, okra, and Asian long beans.

Madfis, working with a handful of helpers, wants to turn the farm into a viable business and avoid the inefficient novelty of a volunteers-only showcase operation. "It shouldn't be more than a few months before we have a legal operation," he says. Until then, he'll keep on digging.

Madfis and friends sell vegetables every Saturday morning at the Urban Market in Esplanade Park next to the Broward Center; find out more at fortlauderdalevegetables.com.



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