Down On The Farm

Andrew blew down her carambola trees and nearly toppled her restaurant. Joan Green thought she'd seen it all. And then the monkeys attacked.

Joan Green's story of woe in the wake of Hurricane Andrew is, in many ways, sadly typical of many thousands of South Dade residents and business people. Her tropical fruit groves southwest of Florida City were ravaged. Looters then tried to steal what was left. A few miles away, the storm left her recently opened restaurant tilted on its foundation, closed indefinitely, if not forever. And her Kendall home was damaged.

But Green's saga was darkened in a unique way by those notorious escaped monkeys, who at one point surrounded the fieldhouse where one of her workers lives. After a two-day siege, in which dozens of the monkeys repeatedly tried to break into the house, the worker finally resorted to shooting several of the animals, only to learn the next day that they were harmless.

"It's amazing to be on top of the world one day, and the next you are in the shits," Green mutters as she walks through the remains of her grove at SW 344th Street and 212th Avenue. Lime trees from a neighboring orchard litter her grounds; an empty trailer from an eighteen-wheeler, blown nearly 300 yards during the storm, lies where it crashed against her fence. "You should have seen this place before," she continues. "It was gorgeous, green and lush, with fruit hanging all over the trees. It was truly a beautiful sight."

The grove has been Green's love for nearly a dozen years. "My shtick was I liked to introduce and commercialize new fruits. That's where I have fun," she says. "I'm not interested in producing great quantities and having lots of people working for me, because that becomes too much like work."

Green's crops have included carambolas, elongated, golden yellow delicacies commonly known as star fruit; atemoya, a fruit resembling a green hand grenade, whose interior is creamy and sweet; sugar apples; and wax jambu, a bell-shaped, pinkish fruit that is crisp like an apple. Most of these fruits, and others she grows, come from either Latin America or Southeast Asia. "We were in a very unique place here in South Florida," Green notes, slipping into the past tense. "We were the only place in the whole continental United States that can grow these unusual fruits."

Green herself is unusual. In 1970 she and her husband moved to Miami from Detroit with the expectation that she would raise a family and lead the life of a dentist's wife. But like the geography of her new home, Green's horizons grew broader. "I started taking classes at the junior college to learn how to landscape our yard, because we didn't have any trees," she recalls. "So I took some horticulture classes and I liked it."

Her marriage fell apart, but her attraction to agriculture stuck. Green began by planting a few fruit trees in her back yard. They flourished, and she decided to try turning her hobby into a vocation. Twelve years ago she bought a ten-acre orchard, and a few years later added a second ten-acre parcel. She called her new business Green's Gourmet Groves. "My parents were horrified that I became a farmer and did physical work," she remembers with a smile. "They thought I was really weird. They didn't understand it at all."

Green combined her interest in foods and cooking with an entrepreneurial flair. "I knew I couldn't compete with big growers with crops that were already well set up, like limes and avocados," she says. "So I picked out the crops I thought I could make a little money on, that were unique to this area and that I thought people would enjoy. I sought out my own niche."

She found that niche by being one of the first growers in the United States to raise exotic fruits. For a time in the early 1980s, in fact, she was the largest producer of carambolas in the nation. Many major growers took notice and followed her lead. By now they have surpassed Green in volume, but that has been fine with her. She kept her operation relatively small and continued to exhibit an adventurous spirit, experimenting with new fruits, most recently the wax jambu.

Nine months ago Green, who is 46 years old, began an experiment of a different sort. She opened the Harvest House restaurant at Anderson's Corner, a two-story pine building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The one-time general store was built in 1911 by William Anderson, who provided rural farmers with everything from dynamite to lace. Green reversed the flow of things. Instead of selling goods to farmers, the restaurant bought from the farmers, highlighting their fruits and vegetables unique to South Florida. "The restaurant really was a celebration of agriculture," she explains. "People would come in and oh and ah over these strange things on their plates they had never seen before." The future of the restaurant, however, is in doubt. Without outside funding to preserve the historic landmark, Green says, the building may have to be torn down.

Her groves are in financial danger as well. On the Sunday before the storm hit, Green and her workers managed to pick about 7000 pounds of fruit, but the storm's fury tore apart the orchards. Her exotic crops weren't insured, and though she'll be eligible for federal assistance, Green doesn't yet know whether it will be adequate.

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