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Clear Creek Farm

Tiny space, big farm
Innovation brings new meaning to sustainability 

When Ray and Wanda Davis decided to pursue their retirement dream of starting a farm, Wanda had one condition: it had to be beautiful.

Enter Clear Creek Farm through a 20-foot-high breezeway of an open, heavy beam barn and face south overlooking a ridge sweeping down onto a garden-filled landscape. Colorful edible flowers, herbs and cucumbers drape over wooden containers lining the deck to the west side of the barn. A path to your left leads to an awning-covered porch sheltered by a trellis. In front of you, the spreading branches of a 30-year-old juniper bonzi tree forms a visual frame for a crystal clear oval pool about 30-feet wide and five-foot-deep.

Looking down, vegetables fill four-foot square raised beds on terraces that wind around the pool and step down three levels 18-feet below to a lush lawn that disappears into the woods. Off to the west, a line of giant sunflowers provide wild bird food and attract pollinators for a 50-by-50-foot row garden.

And it isn’t just a pretty view.

The entire farm that supplies organic food for a farmers market in Pace, Fla., and a couple of local restaurants is nestled into one acre of 30 and is completely self-sustaining.

Located west of Whiting Field NAS off of highway 87, its namesake, Clear Creek, bisects the property on its way to the Blackwater River. Ray and Wanda have been married for 53 years—she is a retired English professor and he is a semi-retired insurance and financial planner. Every day they drive 15 miles to the farm from their home in Avalon Beach and start work at 6:30 a.m. harvesting, weeding, building, making compost, and usually not stopping until 8 p.m.

The couple bought the property in 2004 and carved out the gardens from briars and weeds on highly erodible land. They left the rest in its natural state.  “I came blessed without any knowledge of agriculture and I thought it through,” Ray said. Ray and Wanda are self-taught gardeners, practicing the techniques of Mel Bartholomew, founder of the square-foot gardening method. They also took classes and workshops offered by their county extension agency for small farmers.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service gave them technical and financial assistance to build one of two seasonal high-tunnel hoop houses. Trent Mathews is the district conservationist who worked with the Davises on a conservation plan. “When I think of Wanda and Ray, I think of innovation. Their place is just fascinating; from solar power, guttering system, reuse of water, farming on a terrace system and grafting apples,” he said.

A self-described weekend carpenter, Ray designed and built the barn to support the solar panels that power the farm. A thin photovoltaic film coats 18” by 18” metal panels covering 1,080 square feet of the roof and generates 6 kilowatts of power. It is more than enough—they use the extra to charge their plug-in hybrid car.

The solar panels power a pump that pipes water from an artisan spring for all the farm’s irrigation needs. Irrigation lines run from the spring to the high tunnel hoop houses, where the constant 68-degree water keeps the greenhouse cool in the summer, warm in the winter, extending the growing season throughout the year. The irrigation lines continue from the hoop houses up to the pool reservoir and then are gravity fed into the irrigation system down through the terraced and raised bed gardens. Rooftop rain water is collected in the moat underneath the pool along with the reservoir overflow to provide the farm’s water needs. Any excess water flows into a dry creek bed and under an arching Japanese-style wooden footbridge to return downstream from the spring.

The Davises use found materials for building, recycle and compost and use native plants to attract pollinators. Ray designed the terrace to make collecting dead plant material for composting easier. They raise red wiggler worms to enrich their soil. Ray and Wanda collect the seeds from their plants and start the next season’s crops hydroponically during the winter in the barn kept warm with radiant heat.

A 24’ by 14’ canvas awning shading the porch off of the barn captures 80 to 100 gallons of water during rainstorms. The excess water is stored in plastic holding tanks for backup, needed in the case of tropical storms and hurricanes.

They also built in some luxuries. The holding pool serves as a swimming pool for Wanda and Ray to enjoy at the end of a long hot workday. On the way to the gardens, the irrigation system pipes water into a hot tub Ray mail-ordered from Oregon and assembled. When they fired it up for the first time last fall they discovered a bullfrog sharing it with them. “We relocated him to the swamp,” Ray said.

And the trellis in front of the porch not only provides shade. It supports an Espalier of heritage Greenberry Shell apples—a European practice of training fruit trees to grow flat against building walls to maximize space.

The Davises learned how to graft the heritage apple trees from Dan Mullins, a retired extension agent who was responsible for re-introducing them to the area. They are a low-chill apple developed by civil war veteran Green Shell in the 1800s to grow in the hot southern climate. Ray planted an orchard and sells about a 100 trees a year. Last year the Davises were contacted to supply scion wood for a nursery in Uganda, Africa, since the climates are similar. The African orchards supply jobs to Ugandan refugees who farm the Greenberry Shell apples, dry them and sell them all over Europe. “Who would have thought an acre farm in the Florida panhandle would have an impact on a community a half world away,” Wanda said.

Teaching people how to raise food sustainably and take care of the land is important to the Davises. “As the nation’s farms shrink and the farming community continues to get older, the young people of the nation need to be exposed to agriculture and self-sufficiency,” Ray said. Monthly public workshops at Clear Creek Farm teach gardening, soil management and how to plant an edible landscape. Outreach to schools, churches and home school groups teach children how to plant their own gardens at home and tours to the farm demonstrate the workings of wetlands and the ecosystem. “Some of the children have never seen a cucumber grow or picked a bean. By doing something little you can influence a lot of people,” Wanda said.

Wanda and Ray are also involved in the area’s growing agritourism, with Clear Creek Farm listed as a destination on the Florida Playground website and the Davises participating in the annual Santa Rosa County Beaches to Woodlands Tour.  And the University of Florida Extension recognized Wanda and Ray as a Santa Rosa County’s 2014 Agricultural Innovator of the Year for “distinguishing themselves as creative thinkers and leaders in the agricultural community.”

For more on technical and financial assistance available through conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or your local USDA service center.