Back in 1947, nearly one-third of the labor force worked on farms. In those days if you didn’t have a relative who worked on a farm, you knew someone who did. As time and technology progressed and jobs moved from farms to factories, generations began to lose their connection to agriculture and the land as the source of their food. Currently, there is too much distance between consumers and those who produce their food.
But, there is also hope for those of us working to rebuild this critical connection. Last Friday I presented a $175,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant (RBEG) to provide critical access to credit to a group of small family farmers who are building a bridge to consumers and stimulating the local economy through local foods. This project is a great example of how USDA Rural Development programs can advance the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative.
The RBEG award was presented to TEAM Santa Rosa Economic Development Council Inc. in Milton, Florida to set up a revolving loan fund to finance the needs of the Panhandle Fresh Marketing Association. The association, which includes growers from Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Jackson counties in northwestern Florida, will borrow funds from TEAM Sana Rosa to help its members transition to producing fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops which typically yield higher profits per acre, and to create new opportunities for selling their products to local markets.
One of these new opportunities for farmers is selling through a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. Through the CSA, the association sells memberships to local residents to receive fresh commodities from Panhandle Fresh. The CSA offers two peak seasons with a box (or “share”) of commodities delivered weekly to central drop off sites. This weekly face-to-face meeting between growers and consumers can help restore the connection that has been lost for many and provide a boost to the local economy, as local dollars are spent purchasing produce from local businesses.
This is just one example of some great work going on in Florida toward fostering local food economies. I’ve also had the pleasure of announcing a Rural Business Enterprise Grant awarded to the City of Marianna to fund a farmers market that will anchor the city’s downtown park and recreation area. With more than 50 million people living in rural America, you can see that these efforts can be exponential. As the conversations between local producers and consumers expand, local economies will benefit and consumers will begin to understand how their food gets from the farm to their kitchen table.