I recently attended the 2011 Florida Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee Florida. There was lots of excitement from attendees and exhibitors around the programs offered and the local food movement in Florida. There is an on-going increase in the number of smaller farms operating in Florida, and an emerging market for local food is ready to buy from those producers. Fruit, vegetables, and meats are all part of the picture. Being from New England, the idea of taking the summer off and focusing on the season from September through early June seemed odd at first, but it made a lot more sense as soon as I walked out of the airport. The summer heat is a force to be reckoned with, and most growers plant a cover crop for that part of the year and work on maintaining soil health and organic matter content.

At the conference, there were sessions for Protected Agriculture, Business & Marketing, Livestock, Horticulture, Organic & Sustainable Farming, and Policy & Regulations. Basically a full tool box to aid in maintaining a successful operation.  Florida Extension had a strong presence there as well, and I was impressed with their thoughtfulness and availability to the needs of smaller and newer producers. Being able to have access to information and guidance at the right time is really important, and it seemed that they were right there to help.

There are some producers that are working to extend their season into the summer months to maintain relationships with customers and provide year round income, either through some storage crops or shade houses for greens production. I also met a fair number of growers who are working with hydroponics and aquaponics, which uses raising fish as a nutrient source. The fish don’t take a day off, and using plants to scrub the water is a big piece of the puzzle. They high value of these systems allows for smaller installations and less traditional settings than a traditional row crop farm, and an urban setting can become a profitable venture.

I was also able to visit a long running farm in Tampa, Sweetwater Organic Community Farm. A true urban farm, the home farm is tucked onto 6 acres in downtown Tampa, and represented a true oasis. Since 1995, they have been feeding hundreds of families in Tampa, and are providing 200 CSA shares for the 2012 season. They also have a new field off site that they are working on getting ready for planting this year. It will give them a nice four acre field for production and is a short drive from their facilities at the home farm. The lot has been cleared, ditched, a was well drilled, water lines installed, and compost was being applied the day that I visited. Lots of work to happen in the “off season.” So much for a farmer's rest!

There are many people who make the work happen at Sweetwater, and their roster includes the labor of many volunteers. I met with Rick, the founder, and Roberto, farm manager while I was there. Their passion for what they are doing was easy to see, and it was clear that their role as a community farm is something not taken lightly. Opening up one’s operation to the community and allowing the public to have a deeper connection there is not something to be taken lightly. Sweetwater has been doing it for a while, and shows no signs of slowing down. I always like seeing farms in urban settings. They keep land from being developed and offer something valuable to their surroundings that’s hard to replace once it’s lost.

There’s lots more info available about the conference and Sweetwater that you can find on their websites.

I hope your season is bringing you what you need.