Buying Fresh and Local from Florida
While November might mean snow and cold in most parts of the U.S., it signals the beginning of an abundant growing season in Florida.
If you live in Florida, you can easily walk into Wal-Mart, Publix, or your supermarket of choice to buy citrus fruit from Mexico or Brazil, strawberries or blueberries from California, or tomatoes from Arizona. But why would you? The Sunshine State grows all of this produce, and there are numerous local farms that will show and sell you what they are growing.
Florida is known as an agricultural state–it’s probably no surprise that the state ranks number one in the U.S. for orange crops. However, did you know that the state also ranked number one in 2008 for grapefruit, tangerines, sugarcane for sugar and seed, squash, watermelons, sweet corn, fresh-market snap beans, fresh-market tomatoes, and fresh-market cucumbers? That information comes from the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which has a great website with a catchy name (www.freshfromflorida.com).
The state also ranks number four for peanuts and number six for honey production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Florida ranked number 10 in 2008 for beef cattle and 18th for overall cattle–something you may not think about if you stick to the high-rise populated coastal areas of the state.
The state has 47,500 farms, and the land used by farms takes up 9.25 million acres. Agriculture directly or indirectly employs 763,000 people across the state.
Keeping It Local
Statistics can be fun, but let’s bring some real-life examples to local Florida farming.
My Mother’s Garden in Wimauma, not far from Tampa and St. Petersburg, is owned by sisters Susan Bishop and Kathy Oliver. The farm sells organically grown herbs and salad greens along with grass-fed beef and a small produce selection. They grow what they sell on five acres of the family’s 90-acre farm. At the Saturday Sarasota Farmers Market and their retail store Mabry’s Market, they sell what they grow along with other produce they hand pick at a wholesale market.
Growing organically in a state like Florida, famous for its pests and diseases, isn’t easy, but it’s a choice to which Bishop is committed. “To me, it’s a way of life. We don’t want to use presticides,” she says. She and Oliver use “friendly” bugs such as ladybugs and other methods to help keep harmful bugs away without the use of chemicals.
For some farm-grown items, such as citrus or chickens, it can be cost prohibitive or too difficult to go organic. It also takes more costs in labor. Plus, organic certification takes quite a bit of paperwork. For those reasons, Bishop encourages those who live in Florida to go beyond thinking organic–obviously a buzzword in food and health right now–and to instead focus more on buying from local farmers.
“Get to know your farmer,” she says. “They’ll tell you how they grow things.” You’ll find most farmers more than happy to give you a tour of their farms as well, Bishop adds.
As you explore local farm options in Florida, you’ll find new approaches to farming and food. For instance, McCracken Farms in Avon Park focuses on container farming–in other words, growing vegetables in containers or hydroponically. Mike McCracken also sees a growing interest in buying produce and food from local sources. “People want to know what’s going on in their vegetables,” he says.
Websites like www.pickyourown.org can help lead you to farms that allow you to visit and pick your own produce. Local Harvest also leads you to smaller local farms. EatWild.com can lead you to locally-grown grass-fed beef and dairy products (many believe grass-fed beef and dairy is healthier). If you take a look around your community, you’ll probably find a farmer’s market (some open year-round, some only during Florida’s cooler months) or roadside stand from which you can buy local produce. Certain regions in Florida may even have their own publications focused on locally-grown food. The quarterly magazine Edible Sarasota is one great example.
As you explore farmer’s markets or roadside stands, you’ll discover products you perhaps hadn’t considered before for buying local. Beekeepers such as Bert Kelley of Lakeland sell local honey and bee pollen, the latter of which some people use to ward off seasonal allergy symptoms.
If you want to read more about how food is grown in Florida, the Central Florida Agri-Leader, a new weekly publication from Media General, is available. Not to be self-promotional–but to be self-promotional–I have a biweekly column in the Agri-Leader (if you go to the website, you can find my column, Agri-Culture, under the Opinion section).
Side note: As Florida Culture aims to track interesting tidbits about what makes Florida unique, this recent article from the St. Petersburg Times is of note. “Fighting against Florida’s alien invaders” isn’t about UFOs and visitors from outer space. It’s about the growing number of nonnative animals whose population seems to be growing around the state, even beyond the Everglades.