When Kay Hall's 28-year-old daughter Allison was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, it was a shock and a blow to the entire family.
Allison seemed perfectly healthy; her only symptom was a persistent cough. She was a fourth generation lawyer in the Hall family and a runner. She was planning her wedding to fiancee David Nelson. It seemed unthinkable that she was dying of cancer.
As Allison was going through her treatments, she was struck by the importance her doctors were placing on nutrition - specifically eating organic produce, recalled her mom. Also, it pained the young woman to see children receiving chemotherapy.
"She said, 'I want to leave a legacy. I don't want to be forgotten'," recalled Hall.
Allison shared her idea with her family. She wanted to set aside a portion of the Hall family ranch in Arcadia to start an organic produce farm. By growing chemical-free organic produce, the farm would not only offer healthier produce choices to consumers, but a portion of the harvest would be donated to cancer patients.
They got started at once, convincing the long-time ranching family to branch out into farming, soliciting consulting services from certified organic family farm, Worden Farm, in Punta Gorda, and filing the paperwork for organic certification. David married "Aloe" as he called her, and Allison chose to name the farm "Aloe Organics" after the affectionate nickname.
Allison's battle with cancer ended on March 7, 2012, and one year later on that same day, the farm donated a portion of its first harvest to the Center for Building Hope in Sarasota, a support organization for cancer patients and their families.
"It was just wonderful. I just can't even begin to tell you what an uplifting feeling," said Hall, who personally delivers the produce. The farm donated two or three dozen cases of a variety of fresh, organic vegetables to the center every week from March through the beginning of May. That first season they produced lettuce, kale, chard, three different types of beans, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, beets and more.
"I take the produce and leave it. The families know any time they can come and pick it up," said Hall.
The farm also sells to local restaurants, markets and wholesale. And for those who expect organic produce to be smaller and less appealing-looking than traditionally-grown counterparts, they'll get a surprise.
"We grew a Romaine lettuce this big," said farm manager Scott Schroeder, indicating with his hands what appeared to be at least twice the size of a typical head.
"Everything we grew was so bountiful," said Hall. She said she doesn't doubt that they are being blessed.
"It's like we have magic dirt ... dusted with angel wings," said Schroeder. He dropped a handful of four-inch-long green beans on the table. "These weren't there Sunday," he said, emphasizing they had grown to that size in three days.
As a certified organic farm, Aloe Organics cannot use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Schroeder explained that they fertilize with pelletized chicken litter and fight insects with organically-approved products derived from the chrysanthemum flower. A fence surrounds the farm, but a more difficult pest to control are the deer, who recently decimated an entire row of cucumbers.
Hall, a native Texan, and her husband Lewis Hall III, live in Sarasota and come on the weekends to help out on the farm. Pete Wood is sales manager and "right-hand man." He took over the job from Allison's brother Miles, who is now a nuclear engineer. Allison's sister Emily works in sales and marketing for an organic farm in Oregon and handles Aloe Organics' social media and marketing.
The farm currently encompasses six acres, but Hall said there is "plenty of room to grow." Hall, Schroeder and Wood were getting ready to make another delivery of the fall harvest to the Center for Building Hope. Piles of bright yellow pattypan squash lay next to the rows.
The greenhouse was full of perky seedlings of peppers, onions, fennel and more, all awaiting their turn in the dirt. Hall also has a section for strawberries grown in containers. She said strawberries are too difficult to grow certified organic since there are so few varieties that meet the criteria, but she grows hers using organic techniques and donates all of the fruit to the kids at the center because they love the taste.
Hall said they are also make arrangements to donate to a local Arcadia soup kitchen.
It is important to Hall to carry on her daughter's legacy by preventing disease as well as improving the outcomes of those already stricken with cancer. The company website, www.aloeorg.com, expresses this vision, stating, "Allison will be forever missed, but has made her imprint on all of us, and on cancer prevention and care, through Aloe Organics."
While talking about her daughter is difficult, the former schoolteacher said she just loves being out on the quiet farm, working to fulfill Allison's dream. "I feel so good when I get out there and I'm among the plants. I know it's because I feel Allison out there."