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Mike the visiting farmer gets a visit from the Congressman. L to R: Mike, Margie Pikarsky, Joe Garcia, Mike Dill, Kevin Chambliss. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

Mike the visiting farmer gets a visit from the Congressman. L to R: Mike, Margie Pikarsky, Joe Garcia, Mike Dill, Kevin Chambliss. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

It’s not every day that a politician stops by Bee Heaven Farm. But back in January, on a gray drizzly afternoon, Congressman Joe Garcia and some of his staff came to pay a visit with farmer Margie Pikarsky, one of his constituents.

“He’s making a real point of talking to farmers,” Margie told me. “Finding out what we do, what we need, what we want, and how to help.” She said he mentioned that he’s working on a series of visits with all the organic growers in Redland to get their input.

The visit made a favorable impression on farm intern Nicole Fiori. “I thought it was really refreshing to see that he got involved. It felt like he actually wanted to help us achieve our goals.”

Joe Garcia and Margie Pikarsky walking and talking at Bee Heaven Farm. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

Joe Garcia and Margie Pikarsky walking and talking at Bee Heaven Farm. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

And so Margie took the Congressman on a tour of her farm. They strolled around and stopped to smell aromatic allspice leaves, taste delicate pei tsai greens, and spoke about various topics impacting agriculture — NAFTA, immigration labor, and two insect borne diseases — laurel wilt and citrus greening — which are threatening to destroy Florida’s avocado and citrus crops.

Read more about the Congressman’s visit here.

Farmer Margie Pikarsky and Congressman Joe Garcia, with a package of Rachel's Eggs. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

Farmer Margie Pikarsky and Congressman Joe Garcia, with a package of Rachel’s Eggs. Photo by Nicole Fiori.

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Three vendors at the Brownsville Farmers Market offer Argentinean empanadas, fresh local and organic produce from Urban Oasis Project, and Tommie's Gourmet Comfort Food.

Three vendors at the Brownsville Farmers Market offer Argentine empanadas, fresh local and organic produce from Urban Oasis Project, and Tommie’s Gourmet Comfort Food.

Brownsville Farmers Market is small, a clutch of three tents set up in the entrance plaza of the Jesse Trice Community Health Center. But this is where Melissa Contreras of the Urban Oasis Project non-profit, and her assistants, set up shop this season, selling fresh, local and organic fruits and vegetables to the underserved community nearby.

The market is a welcome patch of green in an area not known for healthy eats. The afternoon I came to visit, the place was bustling with staffers and clients of the health center. I had just missed the lunch rush, but got swept up in the cheerful chaos of a group of women leaving a wellness class. They sampled bits of fruit and grabbed up cauliflower picked just 24 hours earlier. Melissa greeted many people by name and cheerfully answered questions. The market accepts EBT and offers matching funds up to $20. One man had a $10 matching token burning a hole in his pocket, which he had received from the center for reaching a health milestone. He carefully chose two golden papayas, bunches of fresh herbs, and a bag of Shawnee’s Green Thumb spirulina popcorn as a treat.

Diverse families come to shop for fresh produce they can't get anywhere else in the neighborhood.

Diverse families come to shop for fresh produce they can’t get anywhere else in the neighborhood.

A woman who comes every week to shop for her family of eight children left with three large boxes of vegetables and a potted African Basil plant the size of a shrub. “This is the only place in Brownsville where she can get vegetables to feed her family,” Melissa said. “This is a food desert.” She explained that a food desert is an area where its residents do not have access to fresh produce and other healthy foods. The residents have to shop at small neighborhood markets that don’t stock much by way of fresh produce.

The Brownsville market moved around and changed names a bit. Originally it was known as the Liberty City market located at the TACOLCY Center. Because of permit issues, it moved to the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, then moved again to this current location and changed names. Last year, the market was funded by grants from the Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) initiative, a federal grant administered by the county’s Consortium for a Healthier Miami-Dade. “This year, we are purely self-funded,” Melissa explained,”Our SNAP matching funds, which are a separate program, are from Wholesome Wave, as they are for all of our markets.”

Melissa Contreras, John Lewis (Sistrunk and PATCH market), Sharon Yeago (consultant), Brett Johnson and Rachelle Lawson-Norwood from PATCH market.

Left to right: Melissa Contreras, John Lewis (Sistrunk and PATCH markets), Sharon Yeago (market consultant), Brett Johnson and Rachelle Lawson-Norwood from PATCH market.

As luck would have it, I got to meet Sharon Yeago, a local food activist and farmers market consultant, who was visiting that afternoon. She was accompanied by representatives of two new farmers markets in Dania Beach (PATCH) and Sistrunk, and stopped to chat for a moment. Sharon was instrumental in helping Urban Oasis get grants for the Brownsville market, and had helped get funding for four other new farmers markets in Miami-Dade. For the past year, Sharon’s been working in Broward to develop new markets through TOUCH (Transforming Our Community’s Health) Broward, a program of the Broward Regional Health Planning Council that also helps underserved residents get access to healthy food.

The Brownsville market is seasonal and will close in two weeks on April 17, following the winter growing season here. It will reopen sometime in fall. After the market closes, the mother of eight and other regulars will have to travel quite a bit further to shop at the next nearest local-grower-supported market. (That would be the Upper Eastside Farmers Market on 66 St. and Biscayne Blvd. It’s also run by Urban Oasis, and is open year round.) But at least there is another market that she can go to.

It took a lot of hard work and determination on the part of Brownsville market organizers to navigate their way through permit and zoning challenges, and to gather funding to get started. But the people of Urban Oasis have proved that it can be done, again and again, despite the odds. Hopefully Miami-Dade County can streamline the process to allow more farmers markets with less governmental difficulties. There aren’t that many sources of fresh produce in the food desert, yet the need is so great.

Brownsville Farmers Market at Jesse Trice Community Health Center
5361 NW 22nd Ave.
Miami FL 33142
Wednesdays from 11 am -2 pm
Seasonal, open through April 17, 2013 (resumes in Fall)

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Locally grown round red slicers.

Round and red, and kind of ordinary looking, the slicing tomatoes in your CSA share box a few weeks ago didn’t seem very special, did they? But they are, and what made this year’s crop different is the way it was grown — in pots of soil, not directly in the ground. (The variety itself, Florida 47, is a commercial hybrid that’s been around for a long time, and is known as a good producing plant.)

Dan’s field of tomatoes in pots.

Farmer Dan raised the Florida 47s one plant per container, dozens of rows marching across a field blanketed with shiny black landscaping cloth, hundreds of staked tomatoes filling up three and a half acres. Why grow in pots? Because the land Dan had to use for growing, across from the Keys Gate Market Garden, was former swampland filled in with rock and even chunks of concrete, thin soil supporting only weeds. “Seven, eight, ten feet of fill instead of soil, and it was absolutely impossible to grow anything there,” Dan explained. Thus hundreds of pots, growing plant nursery style — a quick solution to the no-soil problem. (Plus, it was also the quickest way to get the operation certified organic.)

Read the fine print. This tomato came from Mexico. And people bought it because it’s cheap.

The tomatoes were delicious and beautiful, but financially the crop was a disaster. Startup costs were much higher than if he had planted directly into a fertile field. The potted plants required a lot of input — fertilizer and insect control sprays — plus you have to take into account the cost of soil, pots, landscaping cloth, irrigation and labor. “It cost me seventeen thousand dollars gross to set up, and my net was damn near nothing,” Dan grumbled.

Just as Dan was starting to harvest a few weeks ago, round red organic tomatoes from Mexico flooded the local market. (You might have seen them at area stores.) Thanks to NAFTA, the dollar-peso exchange rate, and low labor costs, organic tomatoes from Mexico were wholesaling for a lot less than what Dan was asking for.

No way he could make a profit. And he was stuck with bushels of tomatoes he had to unload. So he sold them at cost to farmer Margie of Bee Heaven Farm, and everybody in her CSA, large and small shares alike, got round red tomatoes. And, there’s Florida 47s to be had at the Keys Gate Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and Pinecrest Gardens Farmers Market on Sundays, while they last.

Tomatoes left to rot.

It’s not just organic growers who gambled and lost hard this season. I saw a field off Krome Ave. and SW 168 St. where the grower didn’t even bother harvesting his tomatoes. He left his crop to rot on the vines. Half the field was brown and dead, like it went through the worst freeze — and in the absence of recent cold weather, a sign it had been doused with herbicide. Why bother to spend more for labor to pick the crop when he was already in the hole raising it? (Food activists may want to chime in about holding off on chemicals, and allowing people to come glean fields to salvage food.)

Mexican produce aside, growing organic tomatoes in pots was an interesting experiment, but not one Dan cares to repeat any time soon. “It’s not sustainable,” he said. He is sticking with growing slightly more profitable green beans grown in a field of real dirt. It’s a gamble he knows how to win a bit better, providing there’s no hard winter freezes. “You want to know how to make a little money in farming?” Dan asked. “Start with a LOT of money.” And he laughed long and hard at his familiar joke.

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Earth Learning is presenting a series of workshops and seminars that lead up to the Second Community Food Summit. These events will bring in recognized activists and skilled practitioners to work with our community leaders as well as engage public audiences.

The Path to the Summit will be organized around six perspectives : Healthy People, Resilient Communities, Justice and Fairness, Sustainable Ecosystems, Vibrant Farms, and Thriving Local Economies.

Thursday, September 29th
8:00 am to Noon: “Local Plus” Food Access for All (Healthy People)
1:00 – 4:00 pm: Enabling Local Food (Resilient Communities)
6:30 – 9:30 pm: Re-Setting the Table, Toward Food Justice (Justice and Fairness)

Friday, September 30th
8:00 am – Noon: Sustainable Agriculture for All (Justice and Fairness)
6:00 – 9:30 PM: Carbon Farming: An Appetizing Strategy for Ecosystem Restoration and Climate Change (Sustainable Ecosystems)

Saturday, October 1st
3:00 – 7:00 PM: The New Agrarians: Growing Food Everywhere (Vibrant Farms)
7:00 – 10:00 PM: Greenhorns Film Screening & Potluck

Sunday, October 2nd
9:00 AM – 3:00 PM: Regenerative Farm Tour
4:00 – 8:00 PM: Miami’s Local Food Scene: Dine-Around Midtown

Monday, October 3rd
8 am – Noon: Slow Money Workshop
1:00 – 4:00 PM: Leading the Transition to a Local Food Economy

For detailed information on the pre-Summit workshops, along with registration and locations, go to the Earth Learning web site.

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Join Earth Learning at the Second Greater Everglades Community Food Summit to envision and design a local food system in southern Florida that is vibrant, healthy, just, sustainable and resilient.

This Summit will include a who’s who of local food professionals, activists and enthusiasts from southern Florida, providing an unprecedented networking and partnership-building opportunity for all seeking to advance the passion for South Florida’s year round bounty of local foods. Be an active participant!

Keynote speakers are Woody Tasch of Slow Money, and Michael Brownlee of Transition Colorado.

Participants will:
* Interact with presenters on the leading-edge of the local food movement
* Share the State of the Foodshed report, highlighting our progress to date and highlighting local success stories
* Develop a shared vision and an Action Plan to move forward this vision
* Identify opportunities to enhance the production, processing, storage, distribution, marketing, and consumption of foods sustainably grown in the Greater Everglades bioregion
* Network and build relationships

When:
Tuesday, October 4 2011, 8 am – 6:00 pm
through Wednesday, October 5, 2011 8 am – 4:30 pm

Registration:
Early Pricing $80 ends Sept. 23rd — Regular price $95
(including breakfast and lunch both days)
Register at the Earth Learning web site

Location:
Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus
300 NE 2nd Avenue, Building 3, Room 3210
Miami, FL 33132

If you have any questions about the event or how to register please feel free to contact Cat McLean, events@earth-learning.org , 786-233-2784

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UPDATE: Mayor Gimenez is coming to Homestead to meet with the community!

An additional Town Hall Meeting was recently scheduled for August 24, 2011 at 7:00 pm. The address is: William Dickinson Community Center, 1601 Krome Avenue, Homestead FL. 

By now you’ve already heard that the new Miami-Dade County Mayor, Carlos Gimenez, is cutting the county budget. When it comes to local agriculture, these cuts could run very deep.

To slash an estimated $1.2 million from the county’s general operating fund, over $700,000 for UF/IFAS Extension Services was proposed to be gutted. If county funding is drastically cut, Extension will lose matching funds from University of Florida. To shave off another $300,000 in the budget, the county Agricultural Manager’s office would be completely eliminated.

Cuts to Extension

Since the Palmetto Bay Town Hall meeting on August 9th, Mayor Gimenez said he would reinstate full funding to Extension, and partial funding for the Agricultural Manager. (However, it is unclear what “full funding” means for Extension, since its budget was cut by 20% back in 2009 by former mayor Carlos Alvarez, and never completely restored since then.)

The originally proposed budget cuts put some Extension programs at risk of disappearing, and crippled others. At risk were a number of important consumer and agriculture programs that have a huge impact on the community, such as the 4H youth leadership program, and various consumer services for low income families and seniors.

Both the urban horticulture program assistant position, and the Commercial Agriculture and Horticulture programs were threatened with elimination. These programs provide ongoing training and certification for vegetable and fruit growers, landscapers and nurserymen. Growers would have to spend extra money to travel to other counties to get their industry-required training.

Ongoing workshops and seminars for commercial farmers were slated to be completely wiped out. This is the heart and soul of Extension, which teams up with UF researchers to provide growers the latest information how to fight diseases and pests (like the red bay ambrosia beetle which threatens the avocado industry), new methods of production, and new varieties of plants and crops.

Agriculture Manager

Also on the chopping block was the county Agriculture Manager. The job is currently held by Charles LaPradd, a fourth generation local grower who acts as the liason between county government and local growers. His voice is the only one in local government speaking up for the county’s $2.7 billion industry in this county. (That’s only second to tourism in income in Miami-Dade.) In the space of six years, the Ag Manager brought in almost $7 million in grant funding used to support and promote local agriculture.

Among many projects, one of the most visible was the Redland Raised campaign, designed to get branding and recognition for locally grown food in Publix supermarkets. Charles was involved in the push to pass three new county ordinances last year that promote B&B’s and agritourism, and allow growers to make and sell jams, pickles and other value added products.

Be the voice

The current budget proposal is only preliminary. It can and has already been changed. Bowing to pressure from a vocal showing at a packed Town Hall meeting in Palmetto Bay last week, Mayor Gimenez has already reversed his stance.

Go and make your voice heard in person! Mayor Gimenez is holding a series of Town Hall meetings through the month of August, at various places around the county. It’s rumored that the mayor said the squeaking wheel will get the grease, so word to the wise, get out there and squeak speak!

The remaining meetings are listed below:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Location: Miami Art Museum, 101 West Flagler Street, Miami, FL 33130
Time: 7:00pm – 8:00pm

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Location: Coral Gables Country Club, 997 North Greenway Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33134
Time: 7:00pm – 8:00pm

Wednesday, August 23, 2011

Location: Hialeah Senior High School, 251 East 47th Street, Hialeah, FL 33013
Time: 7:00pm – 8:00pm

If you can’t make it to a Town Hall omeeting, contact Carlos Gimenez’s office at:

Office of the Mayor
Stephen P. Clark Center
111 NW 1st Street
Miami, FL 33128
mayor@miamidade.gov
305-375-5071

However, the commissioners still need to vote on the proposed budget, and there’s a good chance their vote could still reduce or eliminate funding. There will be two public hearings, on September 8th and September 22nd, at Commission Chambers in the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami. Next comes the commisioners’ final approval for the budget. You can find a list of commissioners and their contact information here.

Locavores, this is not the time to be complacent and think the worst is over. Don’t sit back and watch support and resources dwindle for your local farmers and fellow citizens.  Educate your commissioners on how important Extension and the Ag Manager are to local agriculture — and the local food scene. You still have time to let them know how the budget cuts will also impact your eating choices or your business.

Download the proposed FY 2011-12 budget from the county web site.

Download an intelligent and passionate editorial written by Mike Dill, re the impact of cuts to ag services, which was recently published in the South Dade News-Leader.

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Mayor Gimenez backtracks on cuts to agriculture budget

Following an outpouring of support, agricultural services will not face the drastic reductions originally proposed in the county budget.

The Miami Herald, posted on Friday August 12,2011.

By Christina Veiga
cveiga@MiamiHerald.com

More than 100 people packed into the council chamber at town hall in Palmetto Bay for a meeting the discuss the Miami-Dade County budget, Tuesday, August 9, 2011. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez discussed his proposed county budget, answered questions, and took public comments.

South Miami-Dade’s agriculture community will not face the dire cuts originally proposed in Mayor Carolos Gimenez’s preliminary budget.

The announcement, made Tuesday by a mayoral aide at a budget town hall meeting in Palmetto Bay, was met with cheers from supporters who have recently flooded elected officials with calls, e-mails, letters and visits.

The county’s agricultural extension service and agricultural manager’s office will still face cuts, however. Ag extension is now poised to lose $140,000 instead of the $800,000 originally proposed. And the agricultural manager’s office is expected to lose its assistant, while the rest of the manager’s budget will be restored with a federal grant, county spokeswoman Vanessa Santana-Peñate said.

Still, compared to the drastic cuts initially proposed, the new plan is a “tremendous blessing,”said Theresa Smith, director of communications for the Dade County Farm Bureau.

To read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/08/10/2353728/mayor-gimenez-backtracks-on-cuts.html

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