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Seed money

A proposed urban garden near Lake Eola is burdened by ties to a giant agribusiness

Photo: DavePlotkin, License: N/A


Photo: , License: N/A

Barron, who works as a sales manager in the company’s lawn and garden division, argues that Eola Garden would indeed be a model of sustainability, because the vegetables would not be trucked long distances by fossil fuel-powered vehicles, as is the norm for much of the produce sold for human consumption. More importantly, she paints the controversy as misconstrued – along with Syngenta spokesperson Paul Minehart, Barron says that the garden is her own private project, not Syngenta’s. But that wasn’t the message relayed to those at the Organic Growers meeting, nor zoning officials at the city of Orlando. When Meer and the Simple Living Institute backed out of the project in July, solely on the basis of Syngenta’s apparent sponsorship, Barron made no effort to correct her – instead, Barron agreed that the partnership would not work. In addition, Barron’s January 2010 zoning change request to the city of Orlando is printed on Syngenta letterhead, contains a sentence that begins with the phrase “On behalf of Syngenta,” and even asserts that “Syngenta will monitor the planting and growth of the seasonal vegetables.” Until recently, a flier advertising a public meeting to discuss plans for the garden, displayed at the Publix on Central Avenue, even bore the Syngenta logo.

Minehart says the company’s supposed involvement was “a misunderstanding on Melissa’s part”; Barron says that she misconstrued her bosses’ appraisal of the idea to mean that her company was fully onboard with the proposal. But she also now doubts the garden will even come to exist, given the uncomfortable attention that her project has received from her own company after repeated questioning by the Orlando Weekly. If the project does go forward, she says, the vegetables would not come from genetically modified seeds. “I know that there wouldn’t be any GMO crops,” she says. “[But] there is no guaranteed garden.” (Barron’s partner in the project, Chris Merritt, could not be reached for comment.)

The most discouraging remarks about the garden, however, have come from Ustler himself. When he spoke to the Weekly by phone, he wondered aloud if a successful urban garden is compatible with a privately owned piece of land slated for commercial development – if the garden does come to exist, he says, it will be only an interim use for the plot. “You can’t take land that people have invested in, and somebody’s loaned money on, and encumber it by saying, ‘This is just going to be a garden for the next five years,’” he says. “If Hilton Hotels called me tomorrow and said, ‘Craig, I’d like to buy that site,’ I’d have to be able to sell it to them.”

If either Ustler or Barron’s pessimistic outlook for their own project comes to pass, it will complete an ironic life cycle for the Eola Garden. After all, the Syngenta brand and Ustler’s connections were arguably the reason for the Eola Garden idea in the first place, and almost certainly, one of those two forces will be blamed for its demise.

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