by Mike Merino
We all know what success looks like based on society’s standards, but the rarer version of success is a peace far more nuanced, hard-earned and personally rewarding. It takes that inner fortitude to trust your intuition, find the courage to take risks and defy the path well-traveled that offers deliverance to the greatest success of all – redefining personal values and honoring your own journey. For some of us, this means traveling the world, living an alternative lifestyle, or quitting a stable job to follow a true passion. Wherever the path leads, following the heart is a tall order for many of us; but at 57, Tampa native Tiki Camunas hit life`s jackpot when she took a daring leap of faith.
For years Tiki toiled with the idea of a major lifestyle change. Then, just a few months ago, she left a successful career teaching high school and was accepted into a one year apprenticeship program to become a farmer. And not just at any run of the mill farm mind you, Tiki is tackling the gritty, sweat-filled world of organic sustainable farming at Tampa`s Sweetwater Organic Community Farm. However, Tiki`s journey hasn`t come without its own set of major challenges and life’s 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 the art of French cooking. 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, exposing her to the beauty and splendor of the 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 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.”
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, coupled with the frustrating thought of going back to teaching, 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 women 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 five-year-old starting their first day in school. But as she labored diligently in the field, that gleaming, optimistic smile on her face was wiped off within the first 30 minutes. “Oh my, this is very hard work,” said Tiki, as the beads of sweat rolled profusely down her face. With the day only beginning, she started to seriously question her new craft.
“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 every night when I went home. It was certainly not what I had expected.”
After her opening month jitters, those dark clouds began to part. “I worked harder, listened better and the work began to make sense,” she said. 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, honoring her inner voice, 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.”