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Volunteers on a Gainesville farm find joy in the harvest

Two of the volunteers at Nicoya Farm transplant broccoli on Feb. 8, 2023. (Sarah Hower/WUFT News)
Two of the volunteers at Nicoya Farm transplant broccoli on Feb. 8, 2023. (Sarah Hower/WUFT News)

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

Robleto and Asher, both 40, are co-owners of Nicoya Farm, a small vegetable farm in Gainesville. They devote their lives to providing organic food for their neighbors through two weekly markets - Grove Street Farmers Market and Haile Farmers Market.

“Being a producer of healthy foods makes me feel like I have something valuable to offer the community,” Robleto said. “It is a really positive way of interacting with the world.”

Robleto started his career as a painter. But more than a decade later, he realized he felt empty. Although he was making decent money, he didn’t feel like he was making the world a better place.

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

The couple moved to Gainesville in February 2020 to live in a city 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.

“There is something really special about growing up having an understanding of the way the natural world works,” Robleto said. “I would have never expected my daughter to love eating turnips and radishes right out of the ground. There is something about being able to pick it themselves.”

Robleto and Asher manage the farm with the help of one employee, Nicoya Farm apprentice Caroline Hurd. When she met them at the Grove Street Farmers Market, she asked if they were taking volunteers, and Asher invited her to come out. Now, she ensures that everything at the farm is going smoothly.

“I started coming and didn’t stop,” Hurd said. “There are days when I am tired, but I still feel lucky. I have been in so many work situations where I did not love what I did. Now, I come out every day to work for a place that I love with people who genuinely care about me.”

In October 2022, the couple began requesting volunteers to come help plant, transplant, weed and mulch on Wednesday mornings. They send each volunteer home with a portion of the harvest.

Robleto said this is his favorite time of the work week because he enjoys getting to talk to all different kinds of people.

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

“Finding out I was sick was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, but, in some ways, it was a blessing,” Wayne said. “After three years of mainstream treatment, I decided to try and heal my body on my own. I focused primarily on nutrition, and I went on an all-organic diet. I practically changed everything I was putting in and on my body.”

In less than a year, she felt like she had her life back.

She said that doing research taught her that 31% of Americans have nutrient deficiencies, and these deficiencies can lead to more serious health issues.

“It made me realize how many people think it is normal that nearly half of our population gets cancer or a disease in their lifetime,” Wayne said. “Sharing what I've learned about nutrition, primarily how important it is to eat an all-organic diet, is my own way of giving back to my community.”

Alexandra Gonzalez, a 23-year-old University of Florida senior studying biology, goes to Grove Street Farmers Market every week to purchase a week’s supply of produce, eggs and pickled vegetables. She said she relies on Nicoya Farm’s produce because she trusts that it is coming from a place that cares about its customers.

Alexandra Dawson, a 20-year-old air traffic controller for the U.S. Air Force, also picks up produce from Grove Street Market. She said she doesn’t think people realize what will happen if the number of farmers continues to decline.

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

“I think, in a lot of these cases, the people struggling to get healthy lack the access and knowledge necessary to understand how to take care of themselves,” Dawson said. “I get it. It’s overwhelming.”

The average age of an American farmer is 58, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Robleto said he believes this is because it is not a lucrative job.

“Why would you work so hard your whole life and then have nothing to show for it at the end?” Robleto said. “It just doesn’t seem worth it. Sometimes, I have that thought too. I’m just farming my life away.”

Sarah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.