Volunteers at the Gainesville farm find joy in the harvest

It’s harvest day. Daniel Robleto and his wife, Aviva Asher, wake up at 7 a.m., brush their teeth, have breakfast and start their morning harvest.

Robleto and Asher, both aged 40, co-owner Nicoya Farm, a small vegetable farm in Gainesville. They devote their lives to providing their neighbors with organic food through two weekly markets – the Grove Street Farmers Market and the Halie Farmers Market.

“Being a healthy food producer makes me feel like I have something valuable to offer society,” said Robleto. “It’s a very positive way to interact with the world.”

Robleto started his career as a painter. But more than a decade later, he realized he felt empty. Even though he makes decent money, he doesn’t feel like he’s making the world a better place.

“I never found anything that I felt called to until I got my first job on a ranch,” says Robleto. “I realized this is how I want to participate in the world.”

The couple moved to Gainesville in February 2020 to live in a town with an active farming community. They now live with their 4-year-old daughter, Silvia, 2-year-old son, Gabriel, and 7-year-old pit bull, Lupe.

Lupe, the family’s pit bull, enjoys another day on the farm. (Sarah Hower/WUFT News)

“There is something very special about growing up with an understanding of how nature works,” says Robleto. “I never expected my daughter to like eating turnips and turnips straight from the ground. There’s something about being able to pick it up yourself.”

Robleto and Asher manage the farm with the help of an employee, Nicoya Farm intern Caroline Hurd. When he met them at the Grove Street Farmers Market, he asked if they were accepting volunteers, and Asher invited him out. Now, he makes sure that everything on the ranch runs smoothly.

“I started coming and didn’t stop,” said Hurd. “There are days when I’m tired, but I still feel lucky. I’ve been in a lot of work situations where I didn’t like what I was doing. Now, I go out every day to work where I love with people who really care about me.”

Caroline Hurd, agricultural intern, goes to work February 8, 2023. (Sarah Hower/WUFT News)

In October 2022, the couple began asking for volunteers to come help with planting, grafting, weeding, and mulching on Wednesday mornings. They sent each volunteer home with a portion of the crop.

Robleto says this is his favorite time of the work week because he enjoys talking to all kinds of people.

Maggie Wayne, 44, has been volunteering at a small local farm since December 2022. She said she looked for opportunities to work on the farm after she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease four years ago.

“Finding myself sick was the worst thing that ever happened to me but, in some ways, it was a blessing,” Wayne said. “After three years of main medication, I decided to try and heal my own body. I focus primarily on nutrition, and I stick to an organic diet. I practically changed everything I put in and on my body.

In less than a year, he felt his life coming back.

He says that conducting research taught him that 31% of Americans are nutritionally deficient, and that these deficiencies can lead to more serious health problems.

“It made me realize how many people think it’s normal for nearly half of our population to have cancer or a disease in their lifetime,” Wayne said. “Sharing what I’ve learned about nutrition, especially how important it is to eat organic food, is my own way of giving back to my community.”

One of the volunteers performs a broccoli transplant on February 8, 2023. (Sarah Hower/WUFT News)

Alexandra Gonzalez, a 23-year-old University of Florida senior biology student, goes to the Grove Street Farmers Market every week to buy a week’s supply of produce, eggs, and pickled vegetables. He says he relies on Nicoya Farm products because he believes they come from a place that cares about its customers.

Alexandra Dawson, a 20-year-old air traffic controller for the US Air Force, also sources products from Grove Street Market. He said he didn’t think people realized what would happen if the number of farmers continued to decline.

He said the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death in America and that almost half of the population is obese is an indicator of a serious problem.

“I think that in many of these cases, people who are struggling to be healthy lack the access and knowledge necessary to understand how to take care of themselves,” Dawson said. “I understand. This is amazing.

The average age of an American farmer is 58, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Robleto said he believes this is because it is not a profitable occupation.

“Why do you work so hard all your life and then show nothing in the end?” said Robbleto. “It doesn’t seem worth it. Sometimes, I also have that thought. I just farm my life.

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