Neighbors wondered what was going on when the privacy fence went up around St. Simon in the Weeds.
Joggers speculated the squat Episcopalian church had finally been sold to developers after almost 70 years. Or maybe that the church was going to try to put up a cell tower again on its four acres of mostly overgrown land. Was the tiny school the church rented out expanding? What was going to happen to the unofficial dirt track for weekend ATV riders?
“I’ll bet you it’s more houses,” one speed walker said to another as they cruised by.
Unseen, from the other side of the fence, a voice yelled back: “It’s a farm!”
This side of the green screen, Moses Kashem tends to a different kind of holy land.
Kashem kneels on the black earth to pluck green beans so vibrant they’re fragrant from one of many tidy rows of vegetables that crisscross a half-acre behind St. Simon’s Episcopal Church, just south of Florida International University, at 10950 SW 34th St.
He lifts the brim of his wide wicker hat and pops up with the spryness of a 27-year-old on a mission. He points out lush veggies all around him: Here, green beans, red and green heirloom okra, Thai basil and squash blossoms. Over there, baby radishes, heirloom carrots, Indian spinach, daikon radishes, cherry tomatoes and two kinds of eggplant. Another entire section he points out is bushy with salad greens.
When it’s at its peak, the organic urban farm Kashem has built on the grounds of St. Simon’s Episcopal Church will be able to feed 75 to 100 households a week through a subscription service to sell farm-fresh vegetables in a weekly box.
Several local restaurants, including North Miami Beach’s Ricky Thai Bistro, Pinch Kitchen and Wynwood’s Dizengoff hummus shop, are buying their vegetables from Kashem’s farm. During the week, FIU’s medical students pick fresh vegetables here and deliver them on Wednesdays to neighborhoods without access to fresh produce.
“The whole neighborhood could be getting their vegetables from here,” Kashem said.
In these once-barren fields, St. Simon’s Church may have finally found its calling.
“I want the church to survive and thrive and find its purpose in the world,” said St. Simon’s pastor, Father Carlos Sandoval.
In Moses Kashem, St. Simon’s found an unlikely apostle.
‘You’re a real man if you’re a farmer’
Kashem grew up in Cutler Bay, where he helped his Bangladeshi father plant every vegetable and fruit tree on the lush quarter-acre behind the house his parents bought for $30,000. Because South Florida’s climate was so similar to that of India, his father, Mohammed Abul, planted many of the things he knew: Asian spinach, daikon radishes, peppers, jackfruit, coconut, mango and lychee trees. His mother, a registered dietitian who immigrated from Bologna, Italy, whipped up healthy family meals from the food they grew.
Of his younger brother and older sister, Moses was the one who truly loved to work with his hands. He helped his father, who had learned to work on 1940s Dodges and Fords as part of his family’s transportation company in India, to fix cars and lawn equipment. Changing the oil of the family car was part of his chores.
“I was brought up with a love for this stuff,” he said. “In Indian culture, you’re a real man if you’re a farmer.”
A love of the earth made him decide while on scholarship at FIU that he didn’t want to go to medical school, as his father had long insisted. Kashem wanted to farm. (For years his father still told people his son was studying to be a doctor.)
He used his biology degree to land a job as a horticultural specialist, working on controlling invasive species with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Davie. He learned to “use Mother Nature to my advantage,” with techniques such as using a blow torch instead of chemicals to kill weeds.
He started teaching urban farming at his alma mater and eventually convinced FIU to turn a quarter-acre at the Biscayne Bay campus into a teaching farm. He left his job at the USDA. At the farm, he taught high school students through the Upward Bound math and science program about everything from botany and chemistry of crop cultivation to farm design.
The farm produced so many crops that Kashem and several interns started a community-supported agriculture project, selling a subscription for a weekly box of fresh produce from the farm.
‘It’s more about community than faith’
While leaving FIU’s main campus one day four years ago, he spotted a pretty grad student in the school parking lot and struck up a conversation. (“He made a bold move,” she laughed.)
The young woman, Erin, eventually invited him to come with her to church one Sunday. Even though she was raised Lutheran in New Mexico, she had found a small Episcopal church near campus that she liked, St. Simon’s.
Moses hadn’t been to a church in years. His father, who was Muslim, didn’t practice (though he did make the pilgrimage to Mecca). Neither did his mother, who was raised Catholic and nevertheless recited the rosary in Latin every morning while she drove her children to school from south Miami-Dade to their magnet school in Opa-locka.
“I wanted to get my foot in the door with her, and I ended up liking it,” he said.
From the outside, there’s not much to St. Simon’s. Three lonely white buildings sit on four vast acres. A moldering bell tower needs pressure cleaning. Inside, 30 small pews are pushed together before a simple altar, where a donated pipe organ towers over a third of the space. Plastic oscillating fans are screwed to the walls. There’s no grand entrance, just a side door.
The church was founded in 1956 as an outreach to the western communities, where it drew Episcopalians, Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, acting as a sort of a nondenominational gathering place. Over the years, much of the congregation moved away, though they still drive across the county for Sunday morning Mass.
There’s not much curb appeal. The parishioners jokingly call it St. Simon in the Weeds.
“The neighbors think it’s an eyesore,” Moses Kashem said.
“It’s not the prettiest building — at least from the outside,” Erin Kashem adds.
But inside, Moses Kashem found a church unlike any he had been to. There were members who had grown up in different countries and faiths, retired FIU professors, doctors, families with kids and gay couples who had found acceptance here, where the priest is both a full-time psychiatrist and gay.
Kashem watched church members, including Erin, visit the sick at home to give them Communion. He loved chatting over coffee after service. Once a month, the parishioners from the 9 a.m. English Mass and the Spanish speakers from the 11 a.m. Mass came together for a themed monthly potluck, from a sephardic seder during passover to Christmas dinner. Erin and Moses started to come weekly.
When his mother, MariaGiovanna, died suddenly of an aneurism in 2014, the congregation mourned with him. When he and Erin married at St. Simon’s last December, the entire congregation — 125 people in all — came to the wedding.
And when Kashem’s father died after a brief fight with cancer in January — even though he had not attended the church wedding because he became more devoutly Muslim near the end of his life — the church members were there to console him.
“I’m still not very religious, but I’ve developed a community here,” he said. “I realized it’s more about community for me than faith.”
He also saw something in St. Simon’s no one else had: potential.
‘The land was just sitting there doing nothing’
Kashem saw the expanse of land the church sat on as an opportunity to expand urban farming. The church had failed for years to use its only asset. It was met with neighborhood resistance when Sprint offered to pay to put up a cell tower. And the church never could raise enough money to expand the school — something neighbors had objected to previously, anyway. The diocese even thought about selling the land outright for up to $5 million.
But what about a farm? Kashem asked Father Sandoval and the church council to consider it.
“The land was just sitting doing nothing. Nothing,” Sandoval said. “Why not use it for something like this?”
Kashem started with a small community garden and invited the parishioners to come pick fresh veggies during coffee hour after service. He grew hardy salad greens, green beans and boniato, popular among the several Cuban farmers in the congregation. It was an easy sell.
“We had a lot of confidence in Erin and Moses,” parishioner Connie Boronat said.
Kashem and the church signed a lease, which included giving at least 15 percent of the profits back to the church. Having a long-term lease in place means Kashem was able to start the process of having the USDA certify the farm as organic.
He plucked one of his best interns from the FIU farm, Mary Johnson, to handle the business side. And after watching Tien Hung post beautiful pictures of her urban gardening on Instagram at @delectable.day, they hired her as the farm manager.
“There’s so much room for us to connect the dots between the feeders and the eaters,” Johnson said.
Kashem focused on vegetables that naturally grow well in South Florida’s blistering climate from October to May. That means many hardy greens that are often used in Asian and Indian cuisine. During summer, he plants sun hemp and millet to replenish the soil.
A local wholesaler who works with small, organic farmers began pitching his produce to local chefs, whose eyes widened when they saw the variety and quality of vegetables Kashem and his group were growing.
“The difference is huge in terms of flavor. ... There is no comparison,” said Ricky Thai owner Giuliano Carrafelli, for whom Kashem grows Thai basil, green beans and carrots. “Great vegetables make great food.”
When Pinch Kitchen co-founder and chef Rene Reyes saw the greens being produced organically on the farm, he put in a standing order.
“You’re getting something fresh and crisp, and the guests feel the difference,” Reyes said. “Whatever they can harvest we’ll buy from them.”
A farm for the neighborhood
The farm only continues to grow.
Kashem built his own homemade Bobcat out of a broken tractor and spare parts from a friend’s front-end loader. He constructed a greenhouse to start new seedlings out of scrap metal. He turned a donated camouflaged shipping container into a refrigerator to keep any picked greens cool. He cut a deal with local tree services to dump their mulch there for free. And he started a bee colony to help pollinate his crops.
St. Simon’s started its own weekly subscription service, and a dozen members have signed up online at UrbanVegetableProject.com. They hand out the boxes weekly at three locations, including the Whole Foods Market in North Miami, on FIU’s main campus and at the church on Sundays. It cost $670 ($570 for students) for the five-month growing season, about $30 a week.
“We have all this land, and it’s finally being put to good use,” said parishioner Gloria Peruyera, who heads the church’s council.
Even neighbors have started to notice the changes at St. Simon’s.
One who used to tear through with his all-terrain vehicle, Jorge Diaz, 53, is not a parishioner but grew up playing football with neighbor kids on the church fields. He has since bought his parents’ home and had started growing vegetables at the house a block away. When he realized his dirt track had been converted into a farm, he stopped in the next day to help Kashem plant seedlings.
“I love what Moses is doing there,” said Diaz, who says he has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. “It’s a good feeling when you know there’s something like this so near your house. The people in the neighborhood who really want to eat organic, they can experience this themselves and see the food as it comes out of the ground.”
Now that the crops have come in, Kashem wants to peel back part of the privacy fence. He wants everyone to see what can spring out of the ground with a little faith.
“The church should be the center of the community,” he said.
Urban Vegetable Project
For more info: Visit urbanvegetableproject.com or call 305-409-0159