Green Thumbs in the City

Growing an appreciation for Urban Farming in Atlantic Beach.

Tracey Westbrook and Trey Hartinger of Atlantic Beach Urban Farms.
Tracey Westbrook and Trey Hartinger of Atlantic Beach Urban Farms.
Lindsey Nolen

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t,” author Michael Pollan once said. For some, this thinking leads them to seek out organic, locally-sourced produce — and ultimately to the doorstep of Atlantic Beach Urban Farms on Atlantic Boulevard.

In the case of Trey Hartinger, 39, the chef at Atlantic Beach Urban Farms, being hired to work at the greenhouse was the result of a passion he’s harnessed through varied working experiences. After graduating from high school, Hartinger joined the Marines and was stationed in California, he then later attended culinary school and served in restaurant management roles while exploring a budding music career.

Yet, after a request from his sister in 2009 to relocate to Jacksonville to spend more time with family, Hartinger packed his bags and headed east. Before arriving in Jacksonville, he had put out some employment feelers to area restaurants, and ended up landing a job as a chef at Marker 32.

After 10 years working and building relationships at Marker 32 and another Jacksonville family farm, Congaree and Penn, Hartinger’s passion for sustainable farming had fully manifested itself. Combining his cooking expertise and sustainable sourcing efforts, he remained dedicated to sourcing from local foodways whenever possible — and that’s how he met Tracey Westbrook, while buying lettuce. She is the owner and co-founder of Atlantic Beach Urban Farms.

Westbrook, who founded the farm in 2014, says she cameup with the urban farming idea based on her love of community outreach. The 57-year-old Jacksonville native wanted her neighboring residents to have access to fresh food without having to leave their community to get it.

“Urban farming provided the technology that allowed us to bring farming into the Atlantic Beach community without much farm space. Our model is really set up to demonstrate what this new technology can do,” Westbrook said.

Each day, this Controlled Environment Agriculture technology is what enables her plants to grow in vertically-stacked layers across the greenhouse. Using a rotating system, the plants on one side begin to germinate, while the ones on the other sidehave flourished and will soon be ready for harvest.

Before COVID-19, Westbrook and her team were selling most of this produce commercially to area restaurants and within their own farm market. They rented out the farm for events, but as of March, the coronavirus forced them to shift gears.

“We lost 70% of our revenue, and had to figure out a way to reinvent the business,” Westbrook said. “We started to expand our retail market and wanted to add culinary offerings. [Hartinger]was the first person I thought of because he is not only one ofthe best chefs in Jacksonville, but an amazing ambassador for the Slow Food Movement, which supports and recognizes local food cultures and traditions.”

Now, Hartinger and Westbrook work together to produce and craft delicious, locally-grown meals for the community to enjoy. Some of the meals Hartinger has prepared include homemade roasted chicken gnocchi, roast chicken cassoulets, deviled sea scallops and white bean ravioli. Atlantic Beach Urban Farms’ Farm Market shop also sells cheese, charcuterie, and imported oils and vinegars from artisan farms in Italy (all of which Westbrook has visited).

To come up with sustainable meal ideas, Hartinger says he must first determine what’s available from the greenhouse and farmers, and then he gets creative. He’ll incorporate customer demands using the available tools, with seasonal produce at hand.

“We’re trying to grow our own food, and if we can’t grow it we’re trying to source it as responsibly as possible,” Hartinger explained. “I try to keep things super-approachable, but use techniques I’ve learned throughout the past two decades to help focus on the representation of the season. I want to give [community members] something they’re never going to forget.”

While customers can purchase meals directly from Atlantic Beach Urban Farms’ Farm Market, Hartinger stresses that customers should not forget about the farmers. He says it is concerning that farmers never seem to receive the amount of credit they deserve for their labor.

“It’s all about the farmers, we have the easy part of the job. We take the stuff they’ve spent years growing and spend 10 minutes with it,” Hartinger said. “People give us the acclaim, but the farmers deserve a lot more recognition because if their crops don’t come up and produce, it creates a detrimental wrinkle effect in the foodways. The more people actually shop local, the stronger the foodways become, and the more prosperous the actual producers of food become.”

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