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The URBAN FARMER



Michael Meier

Michael Meier, who traded business suits for overalls, has opened Ground Floor Farm, an urban farm and cafe in Downtown Stuart. ANTHONY INSWASTY PHOTO

BY RACHEL CUCCURULLO

When you think of Downtown Stuart, the farm-to-table concept is not the first thing that comes to mind. But in recent years Michael Meier has helped to change that impression.

Meier, an urban farmer who was born and raised in Stuart, had a fairly typical middle-class upbringing.

“I always felt like I had everything I needed growing up,” he said. “I played outside, had friends and, thanks to my parents, had a pretty idyllic, nice childhood.”

And while he wasn’t raised on a farm, his grandparents did have a homestead on about 100 acres in western North Carolina, just outside the town of Marshall.

“I never really considered farming as a career,” he said. “It was just not part of my reality.”

Meier recalled that as a child, there was even a time when he hated getting dirty and sweaty. He finds it quite ironic that his daily routine involves just that.

Looking back, Meier’s time with nature, simple-living and wilderness at his grandparents’ place was the most “farmy” experience he had. He thinks this may have influenced his eventual move to farming.

Meier, who is a graduate of the International Baccalaureate program at South Fork High School, did what many teenagers do upon graduating from high school: He left home to attend New York University in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Meier had big dreams of becoming a writer, an actor or activist. But he also thought he might want to be a physicist or work in technology.

“I was all over the place with my goals and dreams, but I just knew I needed to get out [of Stuart] and go to the city,” he said.

While attending NYU, Meier became interested in anthropology and linguistics. He graduated in 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology. But just before graduating, he was still on the fence about staying in academia.

“My senior thesis was focused around advertising and what I called green advertising,” he said.

Meier explained that he had become interested on how advertising works to create meaning around sustainability and environmentalism.

“I started applying around the different creative shops and agencies in May of 2008 and I got a call back from BBE,” Meier said. “They were offering to hire me on as a low-level traffic coordinator.”

Broadband Enterprises Inc. was one of the first companies to use online video advertising. The industry was growing rapidly and Meier, being young and motivated, quickly worked his way up the ranks.

“I was promoted rather fast, was recruited from the tech side of BBE and started working on a platform,” he said.

For several years, Meier managed the company’s analytic design and reporting infrastructure. He found himself traveling abroad, meeting with large, multinational corporations and living, what he said was, the American Dream. However, the company’s success was mind-blowing for Meier and he began to feel overwhelmed by its fast rise.

It was during the financial crisis of 2007-08 that Meier began paying attention to politics, the economic system and how the collapse came to be.

“That research and knowledge started to make me look back on what I was doing on a day-to-day basis, working for these large corporations, and thinking — am I complicit in this?” Meier said.

Meier felt the need to make personal adjustments that potentially led to a career change. He felt he was working against an important political identity that he had been creating.

“So, on the side, I was becoming more interested in food,” he said. “I think that growing up in Stuart, I only had access to places like Winn-Dixie or Publix and did not really know what truly local food was.”

Meier said he was blown away after visiting farmers markets in the city and tasting vegetables such as Sungold Cherry Tomatoes or Ruby Streaks Mustard Greens. These experiences opened up an entirely new world to him. He became inspired and began to romanticize farm life as being “modest, honest and uncontroversial.”

“At that point, one side of my life was turmoil; politically, socially, environmentally, I was angry at the system,” he said. “Then the other side was food, farming, romance, simplicity.”

Meier left BBE in 2011, exchanging his suits and a successful marketing career for farming and soil-clad overalls. He saved his earnings, paid off his student loans and prepared for a mini-retirement.

For several months, Meier explored the city weighing his options. Then one day an announcement on Brooklyn’s Heritage Radio Network caught his attention. It was an ad for the first honey festival that was celebrating the legalization of beekeeping in New York City. The festival was being sponsored by Brooklyn Grange, an urban, rooftop farm.

“The light went off in my head and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a farm in the city?’ ” he said.

The possibility of learning about farming while living in the city was enticing to him so he applied for a job and was hired as an apprentice, living and breathing farming. He was soon promoted to farm manager and helped open the grange’s second farm in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.

“I couldn’t get enough of it,” he said.

After a while, he moved on to Locust, N.J., where he helped business partner Meg Paska run a three-quarters of an acre farm on a 20-acre estate. Besides vegetables, they raised chicken, ducks, goats, turkeys and rabbits for a community-supported agriculture program.

His next career move came after he linked up with former South Fork classmates Jackie Vitale and Micah Hartman during a visit back home. The three began brainstorming about bringing local food and a better sense of community to Stuart and the result was Ground Floor Farm.

“It was, and still is, so important to bring that young farmer and local farming energy that was so influential to me to my hometown,” Meier said. Homegrown food, sustainability and food education became an important part of his life.

Ground Floor Farm, located in the old Salvation Army building at 100 SE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., is Meier’s pride and joy. It has been transformed from an event space and small farm to a full-blown, farm-to-table café that has classes in food education and a marketplace that offers Meier’s fresh vegetables and local, handcrafted goods.

Meier said he hopes to see more young people come back home and stay.

“There is unlimited potential to create this larger movement centered around community and food,” he said. “No matter how people continue to talk about our business, I love farming and food and this work. I want to inspire more people to be unafraid and see there are different ways to live and learn.”

MICHAEL MEIER

Age: 31
Lives in: Stuart
Occupation: Farmer and entrepreneur
Family: Boy, an 8-year-old cat
Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology and linguistics from New York University
Hobbies: Nature walks and bicycling
Who inspires me: Leslie Knope and Temple Grandin, professor of animal science and behavior and autism spokesperson.
Something most people don’t know about me: “I competed in a women’s gymnastics competition at age 7.”