Green Acres: Manatee program aims to train newbie farmers

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Later this year, the Council plans on debuting the Center for Integrated Agriculture at a new facility – Gamble Creek Farm – that it’s acquired in Parrish, just south of the Bay area.


When Sarah Crane, program and development manager at RC&D, explains the basics of thee new center, it seems rather far from the farming life you might expect. “We’ll help with apprenticeships, creating business plans, marketing skills,” says Crane. “Anything for getting launched, we’ll be able to help you with that.”


The Center will also, of course, cover the basics of how to grow the product, but the big push is training people in the fundamentals of any business endeavor: managing the economics and selling the product.


There will also be a focus on water management issues and solutions, organic production, alternative energy, and sustainability to complement the nitty gritty, dirty hands of daily farm work, but the Center’s real goal is to be an incubator for local farm businesses. “We just want to assist farms and get farms up and running,” says Crane.


And unlike a strictly educational program, the Center will be able to put these budding farmers on land they can use. Gamble Farm is a 26-acre property, with only a small portion set aside for the training and CSA. Program participants will be able to use some of that land to get started. “We will allow them to rent out portions of it [Gamble Farm] and get set up under our wing,” says Crane. “It takes away a lot of the barriers.”


After a few years, those folks will have to be kicked out of the nest, however, but the Center will provide advice there, as well. “They’ll use our land and then go off and do their own thing,” according to Crane. “Then we’ll help them find land and resources to move on, help them take the step.”


Participants are not going to be heading out to open big commodity farms or monoculture plots meant for worldwide distribution. The program’s focus is on small farms meant to provide for the local market.


Great for supporting local a local agriculture base that’s been eaten up over the past decade by developers, and farmers faced with the tough decision between selling land or continuing the tough struggle of living off the land. Some Manatee farmers have recently expressed concern that the non-profit’s Geraldson Farm uses local taxpayer money to essentially compete with their products.


And the new Center for Integrated Agriculture might rub them wrong in the same way, thanks to funding from a Manatee Agricultural Reuse Supply grant that originally paid for the Gamble site as a demonstration farm. Funding for the actual Center will largely come from federal grants to encourage new farming.


Still, according to local locavore luminaries like Extension Agent Robert Kluson, the market for locally-grown produce has barely been tapped in Florida. A little competition might be what local farmers need.


Early participants in the multi-year incubation program will be drawn from apprentices already working at Geraldson and Gamble Farms, with a few new folks from the outside. Interested in transitioning to the Green Acres life? Contact the Florida West Coast RC&D for details at 723-3252 or fwcrcd.org.

In New York City you might find Williamsburg hipsters moving out to the suburbs for their own plots of land, transforming trucker hats and work boots from ironic to just plain practical. In San Francisco, neo-hippies and former tech workers buy a plot outside of town to get closer to the land, the ultimate expression of the locavore movement. Here on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the move from suburb to rural can be more a quest for jobs than a philosophical expression.

But farming, it turns out, is more than just tossing seeds into ground and waiting for food. The learning curve is steep and the cost of entry is high. What’s a young farm entrepreneur to do?

Enter the Florida West Coast Resource, Conservation & Development Council. Last year, this non-profit opened Geraldson Farm, a Manatee County-funded Community Supported Agriculture project. With one project under its belt, the RC&D is looking to get back to the basics by encouraging other local farming wannabes to get into the act.

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