OFRF Tour Highlights Florida's Organic Farmers

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Last week, OFRF staff had the pleasure of leading a group of sustainable agriculture systems funders on a tour of organic farms in central Florida. It was part of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF) forum, and it was the first tour in the forum’s 15-year history to focus exclusively on organic agriculture. OFRF’s Policy Associate, Michael Stein, provided this recap of the tour.

Starting off at the University of Florida, we drove through campus and heard about the various agriculture and food system projects at the university. The diversity of Florida agriculture is rich and varied including sugar cane, citrus, flowers, berries, and a wide variety of vegetables, as well as cattle and aquaculture. The University of Florida has significant research and extension activities throughout the state. While organic agriculture is relatively small in Florida, with only about 170 certified organic farms, the university is engaged in some cutting edge organic research that is applicable to organic farmers in the region and beyond. In fact, the University of Florida has received eight USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative grants—more than any other university in the South. 

From the university, we drove to Frog Song Organics to see a diverse and growing organic farm.  Started by John Bitter and Amy Van Scoik in 2011 on six acres, this husband and wife team have grown Frog Song to 63 acres with about 80 different crops. With their focus on respecting human, ecological, and economic resources, Frog Song strives to grow nutritious food without negatively impacting the water or the environment. On the tour, participants were able to see first-hand the diverse cropping systems and rotations that help organic agriculture succeed in Florida. We also discussed the opportunities and challenges of organic farming. One of the biggest challenges faced by Frog Song is the need for a skilled and reliable workforce. To address this challenge, Amy and John are working to engage directly with students about career opportunities in agriculture, and develop an incubator program to grow future farmers. 

After leaving Frog Song, our tour stopped for lunch at Crone’s Cradle Conserve, where we had a delicious lunch prepared from ingredients grown right on the property. We were joined by Ben McLean III of Uncle Matt’s Organic. Ben is a citrus grower, researcher and vice president of Uncle Matt’s Organic. His 30-year career in the Florida citrus industry has afforded him valuable experiences in all aspects of citrus production, and he provided some valuable insight into the opportunities and benefits that Uncle Matt’s has realized by growing organically. Ben also shared information about the research that Uncle Matt’s and the University of Florida are doing to find solutions to the citrus industry’s biggest challenges through the development of sustainable and low-input technologies. His field trial collaborations with some of the nation’s leading university researchers and scientists has helped establish Ben as a strong advocate for sustainable and organic agriculture.

Finally, after a long day of traversing the beautiful Florida countryside, we arrived at Island Grove where we heard directly from Island Grove Ag Products about their recent decision to convert hundreds of acres of blueberries from conventional to organic production. While the decision to transition was influenced by the strong and steady economic opportunities that organic agriculture provides, the farmers at Island Grove are also seeing the environmental and market benefits of organic production. As large scale organic blueberry growers, Island Grove engages with researchers from the University of Florida to support and advance organic blueberry production in the region. In fact, thanks to the success of Island Grove, other blueberry growers in the area have been expressing an interest in converting to organic production.

While at Island Grove, we had the opportunity to sample some blueberry wine and engage in deep discussions about organic agriculture and the important role that both university and on-farm research play in helping organic agriculture succeed. 

Overall, the tour was an enjoyable and enlightening experience for both the farmers and the participants. By showcasing some of the depth and breadth of the organic sector in Florida, the tour proved to be a meaningful way to connect organic farmers and food system funders to discuss challenges and opportunities in organic agriculture. We look forward to organizing an organic farm tour at the next Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders forum in 2018.

Photo: Marty Mesh, Florida Organic Growers, Amy Van Scoik, Frog Song Organics