This piece was written and photographed by Roxanne Hoorn. Follow her on Instagram and twitter.
As I write, I sip the savory and sweet notes of the tea Som Hart, a Florida fruit and herb farmer, drinks every day. The tea over which she regularly reminded me: “Guess what baby, your health is your top priority.” As I inhale the herbal aromas, I’m reminded of how her dainty china wear looked out of place clutched in my dirt-filled fingernails, yet looked right at home in hers — the tea steaming against her hot pink manicure.
Som doesn’t look like your “classic” farmer you see featured in “The Progressive Farmer,” or any other mainstream media outlet. She is glamorous, vibrant, and finds expression through her feminine aesthetic. She is not the only person I’ve seen farm with style, expression, and culture; I’ve met many, but it’s rarely the image of farmer we advertise, and thus recruit for. She is a bartender, turned clothing retailer, turned jeweler, turned farmer and herbal health advocate.
Som serves as a stylish reminder that farmers come in a wide variety of packages, and don’t need to change who they are to start farming. She lives by example that new farmers can emerge from any background, any level of experience, and at any age. All they need is a motive. For Som, her motive started with her own health.
Three years ago, when Som was 70 years old and without any previous formal farming experience, she decided to start growing some of her own food – specifically, her favorite, dragon fruit. On her trips to Thailand, where she grew up, she would indulge in the plentitude of red dragon fruits, finding a deep love for the sweet red flesh and the fruit’s multitude of health benefits. In her now hometown of Odessa, Florida, Som struggled to find dragon fruit and when she did, they were at exorbitant prices. So, she simply decided to grow her own.
She was surprised to find how easy it was to grow propagations of the cactus she found locally. Triumphantly holding a handful of soil, Som turned to me, serious now, and said “I want to tell the people, if you have this soil, you never go hungry.”
Som also took to growing many of the herbs she grew up with and relied on in Thailand, recalling her childhood surrounded by plants that provided a plenitude of medicine at her fingertips. “I born in a small village, no doctor. If you did not take herb medicine, only one thing, you go to funeral home.” Som had learned the value of herbal remedies as an inherent part of her youth, but here in the States, she noticed that we have less of a focus on preventative medicine and staying healthy, and instead rely on medications to make us better. She urged me, and you, to take care of our health before there’s a problem. “Especially when you’re young… you need to build up. If you have one thing bad for you, maybe high cholesterol, then you go to the doctor and you need to take that pill the rest of your life. But, if you can start taking herbs, you can supplement the medicine,” explained Som.
While Som’s original inspiration to start farming was her own health, one day after her 71st birthday, her personal project suddenly became the focus of her life and livelihood.
“Last year, when the covid come, everything shut down, including myself – I had to lock down, so my income (from her jewelry business) is beginning to stop. I say, what we going to do? I flip overnight. I think we’re going to start thinking about starting a business.” Som, with the help of her son, slowly began to experiment with a business. First, they start selling dragon fruit cuttings, then start selling lemongrass, passionfruit leaves, whole Pandan plants – her best seller for its sweet aroma in cooking and tea, and its revered health benefits – and “pretty soon we’re growing everything. I just throw the seed out there, and guess what? It growing.” Som knows that farming isn’t without hard work, but she tells me “Yes, it hard (farming), but it make you appreciate.”
Som raves about the wealth of her farming, but there’s a secret to her success. “Growing the plant, it’s just like raising children. You have to discipline them. You have to teach them. You have to take care of them. Talk to them. Every morning I get up at 7 o’clock, that’s what I do.” Som spends hours of her day not only caring for her plants, but doing so with a unique level of care and affection.
While excitedly explaining a long list of health benefits from soursop leaves, dragon fruit flesh, and pandan tea, Som tells me, “This is why I kiss them!” Som is known to kiss each dragon fruit as she lovingly tucks them into reusable mesh bags as they ripen, protecting them from her main agricultural “enemy” — squirrels. Som often refers to her fruiting plants as mothers, sympathizing with the wilted dragon fruit stems after bearing fruit, but always assuring me — and perhaps them — that “they be okay again — just tired.”
She treats the whole plant with reverence, as she lists the uses of each part of the plant. Fruits, flowers, leaves, and stems all have a special, invaluable use. Nothing goes to waste on Som’s farm.
Hart2Heart Farm, as it’s now known, went through extreme growth under the conditions of lockdown, but as the world began to reopen, business started to slow as suddenly as it began. Yet, Som tells me, “The world changed now after covid.” She says that covid gave everyone time to think about their priorities and, “Guess what baby, the number one priority is your health… so you better start thinking… you better start thinking.”
Som prides herself on being 73 years old and not on any pharmaceutical medication at all, “just herbs,” she says. She has become a resource and inspiration to many throughout surrounding cities. She is enthusiastic to show anyone her farm, share her knowledge and give what she can.
One woman was so inspired by Som and her willingness to teach, that she soon enrolled in herbalism school, citing Som as her primary reason and motivation. Many others drive from around the state to meet Som and request rare and otherwise unavailable herbs from her. While Som is happy to sell fruits and leaves for teas, she really loves to share whole plants and cuttings so people can grow their own and “do it themselves.”
As she handed me two snake-like “yard-long green beans,” she instructed me to eat the first, but with the second she said, “Let this turn brown and keep the seeds to share.” When I asked Som if she sells seeds as well, she looked puzzled and said, “No, just to share,” gesturing out toward the land. Som’s heart for sharing her knowledge and resources is clearly a deep part of her nature.
She tells me, “You don’t have money, that’s okay too.” She wants people to know that while she is running a business, she would never turn anyone away because they didn’t have money. She wants to help.
In fact, Som’s overflowing generosity fills her with joy, as she insisted on giving me nearly 20 pandan plants and dragon fruit cuttings for “the kids,” which we gifted to the St Pete Youth Farm in St.Petersburg, Florida. She told me repeatedly, “I’m so delighted — I’m delighted to share this — I’m telling you!”
With the world back in action, Som is gravitating back to her jewelry design and wholesale business — inspired by nature and Thai silver craftsmanship — and is passing Hart2Heart down to her son.
Still, she finds time every day to care for her plants, talking with them and showering them with affectionate kisses. But first, she drinks her four cups of her infamous tea — made up of pandan, moringa, lemongrass, and butterfly pea flower — on an empty stomach, a habit she swears by and insisted I adopt, and hopes you will, too.
If you’d like to support Hart2Heart Farm and your own health by buying a wide variety of fruit, cuttings, or herbal plants and leaves, you can visit their website. However, Som encourages you to reach out to her directly, asking me to share her personal number here +1 813-728-3340.
Please note that Som is not a licensed doctor or herbalist, simply a passionate woman sharing her knowledge and the fruits of her labor with the community.
Follow and support Som and Hart2Heart Farm: Website – Facebook