By Ellen McHugh
They call him the “herb man.” Since the 1970s, James Steele was Gainesville’s first local provider of herbs.
Perched behind the Gainesville Farm Fresh stand at the Union Street Farmers’ Market downtown every Wednesday afternoon, rocking a ponytail and a thick white beard, Steele is confident that if people need herbs, they’ll come to him.
“One can’t ask for more, to make a living doing what you love,” he said. “And what I love is to grow things and pass that knowledge onto others.”
After 39 years of growing, seeding, composting, harvesting, canning, preserving, harvesting eggs, baking breads and quiches for bartering and teaching, Steele continues to grow herbs and vegetables. He’s the man behind Gainesville Farm Fresh, an online community market that promotes sustainability by connecting farmers with consumers.
“James promotes the idea of buying locally produced food,” said Pat Stevens, a fellow grower and a close friend of Steele. “He is both computer savvy and personable and is able to get his message across to people on a one-to-one basis or through his websites.”
Steele was recently elected to join the board of directors at Gainesville’s Citizens Co-op, a soon-to-open grocery store that provides its members with affordable food, freshly delivered from local farms. His role is to directly connect growers to the board, answer any questions people might have about selling their goods to the co-op and generally act as the “in-between man.”
But really, who is this elusive man, and how did he become the person he is today?
Steele’s journeys in Europe ultimately taught him what he really wanted to do with his life. In the 1960s, he received a degree in surveying law and traveled the world as a mapmaker for the U.S. military. His time in Amsterdam led him to shift his primary focus to herbs (no, not that kind).
He met a man in Amsterdam who had a shop filled with dried teas, fruits and a variety of spices. Steele remembers scooping up some of the herbs, taking a whiff and being in awe. He lived in Europe for a few more years and made a decision.
“I’m going back home, getting my degree in horticulture and making herbs my profession,” he said.
Now he sits downtown every Wednesday afternoon, eager to chat with his customers. Steele appreciates the Gainesville culture of college kids and people of all ages who really seem to push for a tight-knit community and a thriving local economy.
Steele manages The Herb Garden in Melrose, supplying north central Florida with herbs since 1989. Besides hopping between farmers’ markets and managing his multimedia website, Steele teaches gardening classes and works as a chef at a restaurant in Melrose. The Whole Earth Catalogue, Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening Magazine have guided his pursuit of living closer to the earth.
Steele wants consumers to understand the external costs of shopping at a corporate supermarket, where products are shipped over great distances, with high carbon footprints, and sold cheaply as a result of extensive government subsidies. He’s not judgmental or preachy by any means, but he believes education would lead many people to support their local economies.
“Soon, I’m going to get some chickens,” Steele said, excited to take control over where his food and resources come from. His passion for nature, herbs and local food has shaped his lifestyle, but it’s not the only thing he lives for. Steele has a son, a musician in Gainesville, and a daughter, a model in Los Angeles.
He can disprove the notion that older people aren’t technologically savvy like the ‘young-ins’ around him. He does web design not only for his own sites, but also for a handful of local bands. He’ll whip out his iPhone to show a video clip of his daughter in one of P!nk’s music videos shot in the streets of L.A. He’s exceptionally proud that his daughter played a character in the “So What” video (check it out on YouTube).
Steele recommends living in the moment and never looking back.
“That’s all we have,” he said. “Just live your life with no regrets. I never regret a thing that I do. But don’t slack off. That’s what I’m always telling my kids.”
At the thought of slowing down or retiring, Steele insists that he’s got to keep sharp and stay active in the game or else someone else will come in and take over the herbs.
It’s Steele’s game though. He’s the father of the trade and loves to see the people he’s taught over the years come around and sell their own stuff at the market. The name James Steele floats around the community plaza. Other vendors say, “Oh yeah, I know James. Everybody knows James around here.”
“I’ll always be growing herbs,” he said. “That’s me.”