The Accidental Farmer

For Banks Helfrich, sustainability isn’t a buzzword; it’s a personal calling.

Banks Helfrich stands barefoot in the dirt, a tangle of tomatoes, lacinto kale, turnip greens, squash blossoms, and edible flowers rising to meet the folded cuffs of his muddy overalls. “My Minnesota tuxedo,” he says with a warm smile.

Out here on the farm, there’s no sign of traffic congestion, no crowds. Just … peace. The clanking of bamboo and sugarcane. The rustling of lemongrass. A steady hum of honey bees.“When I’m here, in the dirt, I can just let go of everything and live in the moment. I’m free,” he says.

Banks treasures freedom. The American kind, which is why he’s also an independent candidate for the Florida House of Representatives. But there’s more to Banks than just politics—he’s also deeply passionate about farming. For him, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a personal calling.

Born in Tarpon Springs, Banks grew up on three acres in New Port Richey, the 6th in a family of eight.“We had one cow, one horse, a couple of chickens, and a small vegetable garden. I always loved working in the garden. I mean, what boy doesn’t try to dig their way to China?” he jokes. “I grew up with dirt under my fingernails; it’s in my blood to do this.”

And by this, he means the seven-acre food forest he’s cultivating off Sam’s Lake Road in Clermont. 

Long before he was a farmer, however, Banks attended Auburn University, then moved to Georgia State University for graduate school in Sports Nutrition, but seven months before graduation, he chucked it all to join the circus.

“I went to clown college, literally,” Banks says. “Ringling Brother’s Barnum Bailey Clown College, and graduated with a Bachelor of Fun Arts.”

“We have forgotten the feeling of the earth. We forgot how great it is to eat something off the plant. I call it the real fast food, from plant to mouth.”

Indeed, his life is peppered with a colorful cast of characters from the two years he spent on the road with the Greatest Show on Earth. After circus life, he dabbled in standup comedy and acting. His other career highlights also include writer, editor, filmmaker, and film historian. And while he still pens a column for the Clermont Sun, dabbles in acting, and spends four hours every day networking and door-knocking, his passion is tending the land.

“I bought this property, a former citrus grove, in 2013, but didn’t move here until 2016 and built the house in 2018. My favorite thing is the outdoor shower, but it took a long time to figure out how to make that work,” he says with a laugh. Though Banks is an extrovert, and loves talking to “anyone with a pulse,” he actually enjoys doing the DIY work himself. From outdoor showers to rainwater collection to grey water recycling, Banks has built it all from scratch.

It wasn’t until 2020, during the pandemic, that the food forest component of the farm came to fruition. “Pineapples, mulberries, blackberries, blueberries, sugarcane, a food-bearing orchard. Plus a vegetable garden, herb garden, and I even had a tea garden!”

“What I’m attempting to create is a sustainable oasis,” he says. “We live with concrete under our feet, and we have forgotten the feeling of the earth. We forgot how great it is to eat something off the plant. I call it the real fast food, from plant to mouth. None of this McDonald’s stuff. And it’s not just me. There’s a real hunger in people to get back to the earth. I think COVID did it, in a way. When the shelves at grocery stores were empty, people had to rethink where they would get their food. This farm is my way of showing them how it can be done.”

Which is exactly why Banks opens his farm to the public once a month for complimentary “Here On The Farm” tours.  “All you need to bring is a bucket/bag, a hat, and your curiosity,” he says.

For Banks, it’s about more than just farming— “It’s all about community,” he says, his voice tinged with the sincerity of a man deeply rooted in the earth. “Connecting people to the land, and connecting people with each other.”

Flour Power

Alysha Jackson sprinkles her sourdough magic across Minneola.

I started baking sourdough and just couldn’t get enough of it,” Alysha Jackson says. “As long as I can remember, I’ve been cooking for my siblings, college roommates, and now for my family, especially as I started looking for healthier options.”

The owner and baker behind Minneola’s thriving Wild Flour Home Bakery is on a mission to share the benefits—and deliciousness—of sourdough. Thanks to its fermented starter, sourdough is a healthier alternative to conventional bread, with better digestibility, a lower glycemic index, natural prebiotics, and increased nutrient absorption.

“I started baking more than we could eat, and there was a need in the community for a bakery, so selling the extra loaves just seemed logical,” she says. Her menus drop each week via social media, and orders can be picked up from her home on Fridays. “ There’s always a classic artisan sourdough loaf, but Olive and Rosemary and Jalapeño Cheddar Loaf are crowd favorites,” she says. Recently, she added sourdough scones to the mix, ranging from sweet to savory.

“I love Minneola. The small-town feel, the sunshine …having four young children, it’s the perfect place to raise our family.” And a growing bread business. “Like families, food and bread take time to create and prepare … they also take much love.”

And with that love, Alysha weighs, shapes, and scores every loaf, scone, and cookie that goes out into the community, kneading a treat for everyone.

Seeing Stars

Groveland is leading the way in efforts
to turn down light pollution and embrace the night.

From the dawn of time, stars have captivated humanity, weaving their way into our religions, our stories, and our art. And yet, they’re slowly disappearing. Van Gogh painted his famous “Starry Night” in Saint Rémy, France, and now, the Milky Way can no longer be seen from there.

Yet, there is hope on the horizon. Across the nation, cities are taking a stand against light pollution, vowing to preserve the wonder of the night sky. And in a groundbreaking move, Groveland has become the first city in Florida—and the first in the southeastern U.S.—to earn the prestigious designation of a Dark Sky Community.

Securing this certification from DarkSky International is no small feat. It requires years of dedication and effort. But for Groveland, the rewards are manifold. Not only do residents see the stars—they also see reduced energy consumption, lowered electricity bills, improved health, enhanced environmental protection, increased ecotourism, and even accomplished safer streets.

Moreover, dark sky areas—parks, communities, and reserves—safeguard true wilderness conditions vital for space research and local ecosystems. They are reminders of the critical importance of protecting public lands, day and night.

You don’t have to be an astronomer to appreciate the beauty of a starry night. For the residents of Groveland, and those who are flocking there to catch a peek at an uninterrupted view of the stars, you have a safe place to gaze, chart, or even wish on the stars in the night sky, thanks to DarkSky.

Busting Stereotypes

At the Greater Clermont Cancer Foundation, raising awareness
also comes with a little extra underwire humor.

In 2004, a bunch of local heroes banded together to create the Greater Clermont Cancer Foundation (GCCF), dedicated to giving a hand to cancer patients and their families in South Lake County. As a volunteer-run nonprofit, GCCF’s mission remains unwavering: to provide financial assistance, support, and comfort to those battling cancer. Offering a range of grants, including patient assistance and scholarships for affected family members, as well as screening and test grants for various cancer types, GCCF lessens the daily challenges encountered by patients and their loved ones.

Now, how do they keep the lights on? With love and generous support from local businesses and kind-hearted individuals. And let’s not forget the yearly bash that’s become the talk of the town: “Bras for the Cause & Boxers, Too” fashion show and auction. Picture this: locals showing off their creative flair by decking out bras and boxers in the quirkiest designs imaginable.This year’s Leather & Lace themed event sold out months in advance, and raised tens of thousands of dollars for the charity.

Event Director Marie Howd says, “People are always asking, ‘What can I do?’ Well, this is what we can do—get involved.” It takes a village, and GCCF has cultivated one “supportive” crew. Pun intended.

everythinglocal

Oh hello, South Lake! We’re so happy to be here. First things first…get your copy of The Local at Everything Local (@everythinglocalco) in downtown Clermont.

saltshack

It’s great reading material while you wait for a table at Salt Shack on the Lake (@saltshackonthelake).

dimsumhouse

Or, if dim sum is more your style, hop in the car and head to Dim Sum House (@dimsumhouse.fl) for authentic Cantonese favorites.

Feel like cooking? Stop at the newly opened Harvest Market (@theharvestfl), a specialty market for all things farm fresh, certified organic and locally sourced.

offbeatacres

Speaking of farm fresh, head to the Groveland Community Market for the pasture-raised poultry from Offbeat Acres (@offbeatacresfl) or Harrison Creek Farms (@HarrisonCreekFarm12).

livinboho

Definitely worth searching out! If botanical remedies are more your style, be sure to check out Livin’ Boho Apothecary (@livinboho) for your natural health needs.

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