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Eat Near: One man's vision for 19 Manatee County acres

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Glen Gibellina / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

Glen Gibellina / COOPER LEVEY-BAKER

"We're buying oranges from Venezuela and bananas from Costa Rica, and it's insane," says Glen Gibellina. He and I are strolling the perimeter of a 19-acre Manatee County lot shaped like an upside-down L that wraps around Marjorie G. Kinnan Elementary. A former cattle field, the land has been in public hands for more than a decade, but no plans for the lot have come to anything. Tall grass shakes in the strong afternoon breeze, while clumps of oaks and Brazilian pepper trees wave out in the middle of the field.

Gibellina's vision is to convert the property into a hub for local food, with food forests, orchards and gardens that could help feed kids at Kinnan, or anyone else for that matter. He hands me a map of the land, with his sketched-in plan for where the livestock might go, how the gardens might be divvied up and loaned out to different growers or nonprofits, where a solar farm might fit. The upside for local government is tremendous, Gibellina argues. The school could save money by growing its own food, and the county would finally have a use for land it hasn't been collecting property taxes on for years. "Manatee money," Gibbelina says, "should stay in Manatee."

But the plan hasn't been an easy sell. When Gibellina approached the Manatee County Commission six months ago, he felt ignored, so he wrote a letter to the editor for the Bradenton Herald. "Tens of thousands of healthy meals have slipped by the citizens for the last 10 years," he wrote in the piece, published last November.

"They're coming around," Gibellina says of the commission's position now. Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, whose district includes the 19 empty acres, tells me she supports Gibellina's concept, but is eager to see a more detailed plan for the property.

Although the land has sat unused for years, it does have an old well that Gibellina believes could be brought back to life, and soil samples Gibellina has taken and sent off for testing show that it could be fertile ground.

But Gibellina acknowledges that he's no ag expert, which is why his next step is to both educate himself — he attended an advanced permaculture course last week — and to reach out to partners. He wants to involve Jessica's Organic Farmstand, Mixon Fruit Farms, Dakin Dairy Farms and anyone else who has a good use for the lot.

"You bring in the best people that know their stuff," he says. "Why not go to them?"

He sees his role as identifying experts, putting the plan together and getting the program up and running. His next big-picture goal is to go into small city lots and set up food-bearing trees that neighbors could harvest from.

"We shouldn't be importing anything, anything, into this state," Gibellina says. His plan should take a few months to put together; Gibellina will then head back to the commission to talk in detail about the proposal. Looking out across the empty field, it's not a stretch to imagine cows grazing and fruit trees sprouting. Manatee County's not doing anything with the land now, and Gibellina's pitch is simple: Why not give this a shot?

This is the 40th entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at eatnearsrq@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.

Last modified: January 20, 2014
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