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More Seek the Small-Farm Dream, but Need Help from Friends, Experts Say

Topic(s): Agriculture, Extension, Families and Consumers, Lawn & Garden, Vegetables
  • By:
    Stu Hutson – (352) 273-3569
  • Sources:
    Robert Hochmuth – bobhoch@ufl.edu, (386) 362-1725 x103
    Danielle Treadwell – ddtreadw@ufl.edu, (352) 392-1928 x210

Jim LeTendre of Sunny Slope Farms shares his secrets to running a successful small farm with IFAS extension agents
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It wasn’t long after longtime commercial writer Sandra “Sam” Williams and husband Jerry left their full-time desk jobs to start a 200-acre farm in Starke that they realized they could use a little help.

“Sitting at a keyboard doesn’t give you much insight into how to harvest chickens or ward off whiteflies,” she said. “And those are the easy problems. These aren’t the smoothest of times for anyone, let alone small farmers.”

Many are following their dream of starting their own small farm in Florida, but the economic climate makes maintaining those farms difficult. Unstable property values, skyrocketing oil prices and a weak economy have shaved away profits.

However, experts from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have literally gone out of their way to uncover the best advice for small farmers, and are beginning to spread the word.

Last May, IFAS personnel and other small farm experts toured some of the most successful small-scale agricultural businesses throughout South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. They gleaned the most profitable aspects from booming produce markets, countless fields and greenhouses.

The most revealing truth was that successful small farmers help one another out, said Danielle Treadwell, an assistant professor in the UF Horticultural Sciences Department. So the team’s first step was to organize local farmer meetings, such as one Williams attended along with 30 other farmers in Baker County February 12. Several recent meetings in South Florida also drew crowds.

“I think there’s a growing number of small farmers in Florida that need this kind of knowledge to make it work,” Treadwell said. “It might be a retired couple who came here to raise blueberries. Or it might be idealistic young people who are just trying to scratch out enough to make a lease payment on an acre of land.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a farm as any place used to generate at least $1,000 worth of agricultural products annually – whether or not those products are actually sold at market. A “small farm” is one that generates agricultural products worth less than $250,000. In the 2002 Agricultural Census, 93 percent of Florida’s 44,000 farms were in this category.

The February 2009 release of the 2007 Agricultural Census will be the definitive answer to whether small farming is on the rise in Florida, but early numbers and anecdotal evidence suggest significant growth.

For example, data from the Columbia County Appraiser’s Office shows an increase in the number of farms in that North Florida county from 688 in 2002 to nearly 1,700 in 2007. Although, by the USDA’s definition, these farms could be as little as two cows and a horse or a half-acre of nursery plants.

IFAS-led meetings of these small farmers are enabling them to begin to share resources, coordinate farmers markets, and swap how-to information.

In addition to face-to-face meetings, today’s small farmers are Internet savvy, and have no trouble developing their own Web sites or providing information about their farming operation to consumers on farming Web sites such as http://www.localharvest.org.

“What may be even more important than their ability to talk among themselves is how effective they can suddenly become at talking to their community,” said Robert Hochmuth, an IFAS extension agent based in Live Oak.

Additionally, the May 2007 tour found that successful small farms take advantage of the resources that local and state agencies provide. Local extension agents and nearby land grant universities can offer specialized information and cutting-edge expertise on levels that small farmers would otherwise be unable to afford. “Large commercial farms can pay private specialists to come out and do work for them, but many small farms are operating on a shoestring – a frayed one at that,” Williams said. “But small farms are able to get services like affordable soil analysis. There’s even a specialist just for livestock.”

Another rule of thumb is to develop a broad knowledge base. For more information or to contact a local extension agent, please visit smallfarms.ifas.ufl.edu.

The IFAS site features information on farming topics as well as small local conferences attended by more than 1,700 people last year. The extension agents behind the effort hope to use it to organize a statewide conference in 2009.

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