The Riverside Arts Market, held weekly on Saturdays underneath the bridge on Riverside Avenue, holds a wealth of local vendors that bring unique and exciting products and stories to the Jacksonville food scene. One such vendor is Caria Hawkins, owner of Abundant Harvests Farm in Baker County. We were introduced to Caria by a friend and knew immediately she fit right into our recent jump into spotlighting our local farms. Abundant Harvests is a sustainable farm that is in the process of achieving organic certification. They already currently use no pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or commercial fertilizers on their produce, which they sell weekly at RAM. Abundant Harvests’ main purpose is to provide affordable, organic produce to improve the health and wellness of local residents. They currently spread over 4 acres and grow nutrient dense greens, vegetables, some citrus, and make their own pecan roasted coffee.
Caria, her husband, and her extended family have had their farm in Baker County for over 20 years. They moved to farming as a business in 2014. Before that, they grew vegetables for the purpose of providing for their families. They did a family co-op where everyone came out and planted their own vegetables and they would harvest them together. Caria has developed a passion for farming. When they began farming, they were using commercial pesticides and fertilizers, but as Caria researched more and more into how to grow and sustain her farm, she decided that the best decision for her was to go all natural and grow organically. Caria made this decision based on the impact on her own health. She had an open-minded doctor who believed in the power of nutritious foods and she followed her doctor’s advice. It led her to avoiding a slew of medications and that motivated her to want to share her farm with Northeast Florida.
They practiced and learned for ten years about growing organically before they were ready to serve their produce to the public. Caria explained, “We started out just learning, and we definitely tried a lot of things that didn’t work. You just have to learn one step at a time, it’s something if you’re passionate about it you’ll figure it out. Everything in nature has a purpose, we just have to figure out what it is.” When Caria was growing up she only had a few fresh vegetables to choose from daily, there was very limited availability. As she grew older, she realized as she tried more fresh vegetables that the flavor profiles were completely different than canned vegetable flavors. That was a turning point for Caria, and since then she hasn’t stopped in her quest to provide fresh produce for her family and now her community.
The process of converting from a family co-op farm to a commercial farm is not easy. Caria told me, “Of course we had to go through the licensing process, then we had to go through food preparation training to make sure that we were doing everything safely. Then we had to go through requirements through the Agricultural Department to make sure we were following procedures down to the last line. We aren’t certified organic yet, the process takes about three years and we have already begun the steps in that process. It’s certainly not quick , it’s a long process all the way around.” Caria currently has about 30 acres total on her farm and is using four to farm the fresh greens, herbs, lemons and limes, and pecans for her line of coffee. It’s nearly time for her to harvest onions, garlic, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts as well, which will be popping up at her stand at RAM within the next few weeks. Caria’s farm is sustainable down to the methods that they use to keep bugs off their gorgeous greens. They plant basil in between their tomato plants to infuse flavor into their tomatoes and also to keep bugs away. Each plot is surrounded by marigolds, which are also a natural bug repellant. Caria was excited to tell us about these methods, saying “We use everything in nature to benefit nature, that’s why we are sustainable.”
The pecan orchard is an interesting part of Caria’s story because she honestly had no idea what to do with the massive amount of pecans originally. She started researching different ways to showcase her pecans to add value to them. Caria loves coffee, but she can’t have highly caffeinated coffee because it makes her shaky. She decided to mix in the pecans to see what types of flavors she could instill into the coffee to decrease the caffeination and increase the flavor. They blended in fresh, green coffee beans directly from the Port of Jacksonville and sent it to a roaster in Monticello, Florida. The pecans and coffee are roasted low and slow for up to 10 hours in very small batches so it’s always fresh. I normally don’t drink coffee, but the richness of the pecan scent and flavor makes this coffee taste like a pecan pie and I certainly love that flavor! Samples are available all day at her stand at RAM, and I highly recommend you taste it and fall in love like I did!
Local farms are critically important in North Florida because we have so many food deserts around the area. A food desert means that residents are 15-20 miles away from access to fresh produce. Caria and her husband are currently looking for ways to help their community as they expand their farm, but it is discouraging as they are surrounded by large farms that don’t contribute at all to local residents. Caria said that sadly, many of the large farms in the area export their vegetables out of the county. The food that is left sits in the fields to rot. Caria and her husband allow people within the community to come in and harvest the vegetables that they can’t harvest themselves, thus preventing food waste and helping the people who need the access to the produce the most. As for a long term plan, Caria told me, “Eventually we will function on a larger scale where we can feed more people. We would like to have a truck to take vegetables into those areas where people don’t have transportation to get the vegetables. Sometimes eating comes down to survival, so we are also trying to make everything we harvest affordable. It shouldn’t be sky high to eat nutritious food. We may even start a general store on our property in the coming years.”
As I visited with Caria, she would stop and greet each guest that walked into her booth. She’d explain her farm, the produce that they had available that day, and even how to best prepare the produce at home. Every customer was offered a friendly smile and a sample of coffee. It was great to see each customer ooh and aah over the massive sweet potatoes (like basically you could lift weights with these things), the leafy kale, and the vibrant greens. Caria explained in between customers, “I love the market because it gives you a chance to mingle with the customers and they have the time to question us about our produce. It gives us the chance to establish regulars. They’re sometimes shocked that I remember faces, but it’s because I get to spend time with them. RAM has been a huge stepping stone for us because now we have exposure. Before we were at another market but it wasn’t as large as RAM. Now, we can meet more people and give them access to our product. Plus, we can call RAM our home because we are going to be here year round during the regular markets as well.”
Aside from their participation at RAM, Caria offers harvest days where they have people come out to Baker to harvest their own vegetables and pecans. They also offers tours and summer camps. They’re all day camps where they teach fishing, how to plant, how to harvest, and animal care with their chickens, pigs, and beef cattle. Caria values these camps and tours, she thinks it is critically important that the community see things they wouldn’t normally experience. Learn more about the dates for their camps and harvest days by calling them at (904) 655-4378 or by Facebook messaging them directly. Abundant Harvests is also looking forward to their annual fundraiser on April 30th, where Chef Amadeus, a frequent consultant with us at Jax Restaurant Reviews, will be preparing a dinner with fresh herbs, vegetables, and no sodium. There will be entertainment and it will be held in their barn. The event is designed to raise awareness of the importance of nutrition through access to sustainable, nutrient rich produce. Tickets are available to this event on their website. In the meantime, the next Saturday you find yourself at RAM, seek out the warm, welcoming smile that Caria bestows on her customers and pick up some truly beautiful produce. You’ll love it, you’ll love her, and your body will love you!
Address: 8599 Smokey Rd Glen Saint Mary, Florida