At 64, Mike Merino says he’s only now learning what life is all about. It’s a tough lesson, with cancer serving as his teacher. But Mike tells Growing Bolder he has more hope than ever that the rest of his life can be the best of his life, and he’s inspired to help others get healthy and fit in their lives. Mike is sharing the amazing story of Tiki Camunas here.
We all know how society judges success, but some people yearn for something harder-earned and more fulfilling. It takes inner fortitude and a leap of faith, but the results can pay off in ways more rewarding than a fat bank account and society’s approval.
Tampa, Florida native Tiki Camunas took such a chance at the not-so-tender age of 57. And, by her own account, Tiki hit the jackpot.
For years she pondered a major lifestyle change. Then, just a few months ago, Tiki left a successful career teaching high school and was accepted into a one-year apprenticeship to become a farmer. And not just at any run-of-the-mill farm. Tiki is tackling the gritty, sweat-filled world of organic, sustainable farming at Tampa’s Sweetwater Organic Farms. Her journey, however, has had its own set of challenges and set-backs.
Having conquered the roles of college student, mother and inspiring educator, Tiki found herself yearning for even greater challenges. It was in 2014 when she fell in love with teaching culinary and how everything was implemented by French chefs. By a stroke of luck, an opportunity of a lifetime came calling when she discovered a colleague took students to France every year. Saving diligently, Tiki joined the upcoming trip, enabling her to absorb the beauty and splendor of that region’s lush majestic green fields. It was in France she had her first hands-on experience of fresh organic gardens that were void of the deadly pesticides we use in America. “This trip changed my life,” she said.
THE TIPPING POINT
Upon her return to teaching, she had a new fervor for the culinary field and the burgeoning farm-to-table movement. Questioning the trajectory of her professional development within the school system, she called upon longtime friend Rick Martinez, founder of Sweetwater Farm to explore one of her passions, teaching students to grow food. It was then she anxiously asked Martinez a question weighing heavily on her mind, “Am I too old?” He answered confidently, “Tiki, you’re never too old to do anything you truly desire.”
Extremely excited at the prospect of this new adventure, and as soon as she committed, reality set in. Tiki realized she was in a quandary, especially due to the fact that the program only paid a small weekly stipend. “What about paying the bills?” she said. “How will I explain this radical decision to my family and friends?”
The thought of budget crunching, and along with a lot of soul-searching guided her difficult decision. “It was now or never,” she thought to herself with the determination of a woman ready for what could be the hardest and most grueling experience she had ever encountered.
LIFE ON THE FARM
On the first day of her apprenticeship, Tiki rolled in with the enthusiasm of a 5-year-old on the first day of school. But that gleaming, optimistic smile soon turned to a grimace.
“Oh my, this is very hard work,” said Tiki, beads of sweat rolling down her face. The day had just begun and she was starting to question her new vocation.
“I’ll never forget my first month,” she said; “it was hot, dirty and I was bit by bugs the size of Cincinnati. I shoveled enough mulch and compost to build a tall building. What`s worse, I cried for the first three weeks. It was certainly not what I had expected.”
After her opening month jitters, those dark clouds began to part.
“After much hard work, I became a tour guide for their field trip program, working with the farmers who showed me everything from cutting irrigation rows to setting up sprinkler systems. But when I saw that the salads we make for future farmers are picked that morning from our garden, I knew it was in the right place. Farm to table really does exist in Tampa and I’m spreading the seeds!”
The best part so far is that from day one Tiki has learned new lifestyle techniques that she never knew existed; spending daily time with nature, meeting like-minded people, and savoring the flavor of vegetables’ she grew with her own hands. And with three months under her farmer’s belt, she says with a new found inspiration, “I’m so much happier with my new life, I know I made the right move.”
WHAT IS SWEETWATER FARM?
Sweetwater Organic Community Farm was established in 1995 as a nonprofit community-supported urban organic farm and environmental education center in Tampa, Florida. We are located on 6 acres of suburban property along the Sweetwater Creek in Tampa’s Town ‘n’ Country neighborhood, in Hillsborough County, Florida.