Hey there Redland Ramblers! This is guest blogger Melissa Contreras, founder of Urban Oasis Project. Last night, a group of Redland and Miami farmers and I returned home after a weekend at the 2nd Small Farms/Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee. I have always been a farmer wannabe, and as such, I grow food for my family, my pet bunnies, and a few friends on my 1/4 acre “urban homestead” in Kendall. I was happy to learn at the conference that this small scale of growing is now being officially considered as part of our local food system, as it should be! The University of Florida/IFAS Extension isn’t just for big farmers and agribusiness, we little people count too!
Cast of characters on this road trip included Bee Heaven Farmer Margie, husband Nick, their new farm manager Jane; Muriel of Little River Market Garden, Mario of Guara Ki Farm, and me. Meeting up at Bee Heaven Farm, we shared a ride in Margie’s van, and took the scenic route around the shores of Lake Okeechobee on US 27. It was beautiful! Cows and egrets mingled in green pastures, Nick spotted a sandhill crane, and tri-color herons searched for underwater snacks near the water’s edge. Along the way, through what was once a river of grass, we saw fields of sugarcane (some organic), and picturesque views which reminded me that while South Florida is often thought of as a metropolitan built environment, it still belongs to Mother Nature, though altered. Hopefully Everglades restoration will return the river of grass to its rightful owner.
After 4 hours on the road, we arrived and checked into our hotel, the posh and sophisticated Super 8. Hey, we’re on a budget, OK? I shared a suite with Margie, Nick, and Jane. After repeated promises to Jane that I would not confuse her with my husband in the middle of the night, she decided to sleep on the couch. But, I digress. We had a nice lunch in restored historic downtown Kissimmee, an old cowboy town with a lovely lakefront, unique and colorful wooden homes with gingerbread mill work, unusual eateries and watering holes like ” The Wicked Stepsister,” a nice antique shop, and so much more. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, take a break from the Orlando area tourist traps and visit this authentic town.
After lunch, we proceeded to the Osceola Heritage Center, site of the next day’s convention, for meetings of the Greater Everglades Foodshed Alliance, the Florida Food Policy Council, and a pre-conference pow-wow with Extension agents from all over Florida. The Greater Everglades Foodshed Alliance meeting was a recap of the Food Summit for interested parties. The Florida Food Policy Council will “bring together stakeholders from diverse food-related sectors to examine how the food system is operating and to develop recommendations on how to improve it. FPCs may take many forms, but are typically either commissioned by state or local government, or predominately a grassroots effort. Food policy councils have been successful at educating officials and the public, shaping public policy, improving coordination between existing programs, and starting new programs.” (definition from foodsecurity.org). We are forming a soon-to-be Miami food policy council. (Contact Mario if you have a stake in our local food system and want to participate in this new effort.)
Those who attended the informal Friday meetings were also invited to sit in on the pre-conference event for UF/IFAS Extension agents, in which Dr. Danielle Treadwell, Dr. Mickey Swisher, and Sarasota Extension’s new Director and doctoral candidate Evangeline “Van” Linkous talked about our changing food system from their different points of view and varying expertise. Dr. Treadwell champions UF research in organic and sustainable farming, and feels that “educating consumers is an important part of what we do.” Dr. Swisher said she was surprised to discover the “30 mile problem” in which “disadvantaged communities in Florida’s urban areas often live 30-40 miles from areas where fresh produce is grown.” Van’s background is in planning and she was a member of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Council before coming back to Florida from Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. She feels that much urban zoning could be converted to mixed-use, which could mean urban farms and farm stands could be located within high-density urban populations, giving urbanites more access to local, fresh food. A kindred spirit! We are quite lucky to have these three women in Extension.
So, if you’re catching on to a theme here, the conference tagline was “Sustaining Small Farms…Strengthening Florida’s Communities.” There was much excitement among attendees on that Friday before the conference, seeing our major research institutions catching onto interests of so many people in local food, and food justice as a paradigm shift from our current system. Further illustrating this point is the choice of keynote speaker for the conference: my personal hero, Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, Inc.
I will write more about Saturday of the conference in the next post: keynote speaker Will Allen, the three Florida Innovative Farmer Award winners, conference workshops, amazing local foods lunch and more! Come back for more, including pictures!