The Cradle will rock again
Crones’ Cradle Conserve events will return this fall after a long hiatus.
Crones’ Cradle Conserve can be found north of Ocala, where two-lane roads snake through mossy oak tunnels past horse farms and shadowy marshes. The 756-acre organic farm east of Citra draws visitors daily to purchase a rotating crop of organic vegetables.
Its rustic store features handmade goods, decorative art and gardening books, while a coterie of cats lounge on a wraparound porch.
The lush and expansive farm has become a favorite among North Central Florida organic food enthusiasts. Along with pesticide-free produce, the Conserve also has presented workshops, special events and retreats. All of the event programming and workshops have been on hold since the COVID-19 outbreak but will be making a comeback.
“When COVID started, we struggled to stay on top of stuff and meet our expenses, but now things have turned out to be a little bit different,” said owner Jeri Baldwin. “And, so, we are going to go back to some of our larger events.”
Baldwin recently announced via email that the Conserve will host the Natural Foods Gala once again, gathering food lovers, musicians and artisans on Oct. 22 to enjoy live music, vendors and tapas-style samplings of farm-to-table cuisine prepared by local chefs.
The Conserve’s biggest annual outreach will usher in a regular slate of educational events and workshops. The schedule for those will be announced at the gala.
COVID-19 and other setbacks may have threatened the Conserve over the years, but hard work and helping hands have made the farm thrive, even after a devastating fire destroyed its conference center in 1993, Hurricane Irma hit in 2017 and the pandemic took its toll.
One loss that especially hit hard: The farm’s co-founder, Deborah Light, died around seven years ago from complications related to COPD.
“She lived in New York and had made some wonderful land use programs happen up there,” Baldwin said of Light.
Now 83, Baldwin reminisces about the past four decades in the gently instructive tone of a schoolteacher with just a hint of a southern accent. The Marion County native talked about her upbringing, working on her parents’ farm, and said she taught in area schools.
“One of the things that I, of course, always had on my mind was what was happening to the land in Florida and in Marion County,” Baldwin said, adding that she belonged to a women’s group that saved swaths of forested land from development.
“Sometimes we were successful and sometimes we got kicked out of the way,” Baldwin said of her woman’s group’s efforts to keep developers off forested Ocala land. “Once, a 1,000-house unit got approved. And, so you know, what happens when people cut trees and cut everything down, it looks different. It acts different. It is different. It doesn’t produce as well. It doesn’t recover as well. Not a lot of good happens when people just take bulldozers and run over land.”
Gathering with women, educating women and empowering them has always been a priority for Baldwin. Those efforts have manifested at Crones’ Cradle Conserve. The website at cronescradleconserve.org explains the farm’s name thusly: Crone — to honor elder folk who are often ignored, neglected, and forgotten; Cradle — because of our commitment to nurture the earth, its wildlife, and people in physical, emotional, and spiritual need and recovery; Conserve — because the land is conserved, as are foods and values.
The Conserve became a nonprofit and received recognition as a Florida Stewardship Forest from the Florida Department of Forestry in 2010. It’s open daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and offers more than 50 vegetables, 25 herbs and nearly one dozen fruits for sale. Many wild fruits grow on the farm and are used in food dishes, jams, jellies and wines.
Baldwin emphasizes that the farm uses a 100 percent organic, pesticide-free approach, “which isn’t the case with all U-pick and fresh produce operations.”
A list of available produce is usually posted on the Conserve’s Facebook page, which will also update followers on the latest details about the upcoming gala in October.
“Lots of people are already excited about the gala and events that we’re going to try and start again,” she said
“We have a pretty good turnout for our vendors,” Baldwin added. “People who come know that they will get handmade items with the vendor or the creator right there onsite. So, they love to come and talk to the person who’s created the basket or the quilt or the soap they’re purchasing.”
The Crones’ Cradle Conserve welcomes visitors to walk around, visit the store and tour the gardens on non-event days, too.
“The most important gift for the future of agriculture and healthy living is to teach young ones to love and nurture it, so that it can continue to provide for future generations,” Baldwin said in a recent Facebook post. “If you want to motivate young farmers, call us to schedule a day of touring, picking, planting, and fun, where they can experience everything from farming to conservation.”
To learn more, go to www.cronescradleconserve.org.