Farmers Keep Food on Tables During Outbreak
Several local agricultural operations have adapted to sell their crops under new conditions caused by COVID-19.
As Florida farmers face a loss of business, local operations are working to adapt. Florida farmers who lost business selling to wholesale clients like restaurants and schools, now closed because of COVID-19, have taken dramatic steps to clear out their perishable products — from dumping milk and destroying vegetables, to selling produce at below-market prices. The Florida Department of Agriculture estimates $522.5 million of crops have been lost. However, many small farmers in the tri-county area have adapted to the current conditions and continue to make produce available. And The Villages Grown has also stepped up, helping local restaurants and providing residents with options for healthy meals. Bountiful Farms, an organic farm in Okahumpka and vendor at the Brownwood Farmers Market, is seeing interest from Villagers and area residents who have purchased from them.
Word of mouth is helping raise awareness that even though the Brownwood market is closed, the farm remains open, owner Jessica Gentry said.
Visitors to Bountiful Farms are mostly buying staples like lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, Gentry said. But she’s had a hard time selling more exotic crops like bok choy and napa cabbages, which sold well at the Brownwood market.
The challenge right now isn’t just consumers’ access to fresh food, but farmers’ access to customers who can buy their products.
As a way to support farmers and curb food waste and hunger, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recently launched an initiative called Keep Florida Growing, which aims to connect farmers, ranchers and growers with consumers.
A key part of this initiative is a directory called the Florida Farm To You Commodities List, which lists Florida farms that are looking for buyers by commodity.
The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) extension is working with the state on helping farmers adjust to the current situation, said Matt Smith, sustainable agriculture and small farms agent with Sumter County’s extension office.
“They lost a lot of buyers, like the restaurant sector, the tourism sector, cruise ships – you name it,” he said. “With those markets being closed off, we’ve been trying to do a lot of work connecting growers to buyers.”
For example, UF/IFAS is working with growers at pick your own, or U-pick, farms to assist them in how to remain open while practicing social distancing.
One of the farms Smith worked with was Back Road Berries in Oxford, located a short drive from Southern Trace Plaza. The farm is currently offering pick your own blueberries by appointment for four hour-long time slots a day with a maximum capacity of 10 people per slot.
They’re also offering to gather the berries for customers, something Maria and Bob Tracy at Heather Oaks Farm in Lady Lake are doing as well.
The Tracys are concerned about allowing too many people into their blueberry fields.
“I’d be a nervous wreck,” Maria said.
Regardless of the challenges in the industry, local farmers feel they’re doing a service to the community by continuing to farm.
“We’re fortunate to be able to stand out here in the fresh air and (grow crops),” Maria said.
Villages Grown Rallies on Behalf of Small Farms
The Villages Grown is raising optimism throughout its small-farm network during a difficult time, while also helping local restaurants and providing residents with options for healthy meals.
In wake of COVID-19, The Villages’ large controlled-agricultural and processing farm became a lifeline for many of the small farms in its Central Florida network, said Jennifer Waxman, executive director of The Villages Grown.
That lifeline became even more pronounced as The Villages farm increases wholesale deliveries of nutrient-dense produce to local restaurants and enlists them to provide curbside delivery of the farm’s newly created value produce bags, she said.
“Because The Villages Grown is deemed essential, we have the ability to ramp up to ensure access to nutrient-dense foods, while other businesses in the community are having a difficult time,” Waxman said.
The network of small farms is critical to this ramp up as a complement to the produce raised at The Villages Grown’s farming operation at the southwest corner of Morse Boulevard and State Road 44 and then sold at its retail store at Brownwood or its mobile Airstream market, she said.
“Our farm and artisan partners are still harvesting and picking nutrient-dense food by the day and getting it to our store or direct to the consumer within 48 hours at the most,” Waxman said.
One artisan especially appreciative about the increased opportunities through The Villages Grown is Patty Holden, owner of Traditional Lifestyle Creations, St. Cloud.
“It’s pretty critical,” she said about being able to sell through The Villages large farm and processing center.
Holden operates a large kitchen that produces gut-healthy products such as fermented vegetables, ketogenic sweet treats, bone broth, a fermented ginger-turmeric elixir and event sprouted sourdough breads.
“I do have a lot of customers other than The Villages Grown, but no where do I have the numbers now since working through them,” she said. “I would say I’m reaching twice as many people working with them. It’s been wonderful having that many orders.”
This network of growers and artisans enabled Waxman and her staff to supply prepackaged produce bags and meals to go through a growing base of restaurants in The Villages such as Katie Belle’s, Tierra Del Sol Bar & Grill and the Fenney Grill Farm to Table.
“With each week, more restaurants are expressing an interest,” she said. “We’re stepping up and showing up.”
That increased presence also includes curbside sales of value produce bags at the Brownwood retail store, 2666 W. Torch Lake Drive, and the mobile Airstream market. The schedule is available online, thevillagesgrown.com.
“We offer two types value bags at $20 each, and are expanding them from feedback from Villagers as to what they want,” Waxman said. “We’re here to serve them.”
The “essential bag” contains two oranges, one head of lettuce, four cucumbers, two potatoes, one onion, one radish and one bunch of kale, collards or bok choy.
“It contains enough servings for two persons per bag,” Waxman said. “It has enough fresh salad for three to four days depending on your appetite. We also have a ‘staples bag,’ for $20 that includes one-dozen, local free range eggs, 1 pound of Florida grown rice and fresh local honey.
“Right now, we recommend that residents order two bags, because it may get them through a week or longer,” she said.
The staff at The Villages also made it easier for residents who prefer more variety, Waxman said.
“Our store is open for curbside pickup, where we’ll personally shop all of our items for you,” she said.
To make it even easier, Waxman and her staff soon will launch online ordering through the website.
“So basically, we’ll be a drive-thru farmer’s market,” she said. “We’ll have an online platform for the residents to see all of our products. But that will be available only at the Brownwood store. Every place else will be the bagged options.”