Growing pains

An advocate discusses the challenges facing the local-foods market.

click to enlarge CULTIVATING CONNECTIONS: For the past three years, Dr. Robert Kluson, shown here planting muscadine grapes in a new vineyard at the Crowley Museum and Nature Center in Myakka, has worked to open up markets to local farmers. - Brian Ries
Brian Ries
CULTIVATING CONNECTIONS: For the past three years, Dr. Robert Kluson, shown here planting muscadine grapes in a new vineyard at the Crowley Museum and Nature Center in Myakka, has worked to open up markets to local farmers.

You may think you're fighting the good fight when you spurn Chilean asparagus or opt for Plant City strawberries, but Dr. Robert Kluson is on the front lines of the war for local foods. He's been an organic farmer in California and a land manager for Sarasota County, but for the past three years his focus has been bringing local agriculture and local markets together.

As the agriculture/natural resources extension agent for the Sarasota branch of the UF/IFAS Extension, Dr. Kluson spends his days meeting with farmers and chefs, big corporations and tiny distributors, trying to figure out better ways to get local food to local folk. He travels as far south as Fort Myers and as far north as Gainesville to put together coalitions of growers, suppliers and buyers. According to him, the market is ripe for keeping locally produced food in the community.

What is it you do, exactly?

Kluson: I'm very interested in linking local agriculture to local markets, beating the bushes to find people who are looking for local food and finding people to grow it. It's almost like you can't take one step forward without taking two steps back. I've spent two years crafting new policies and a comprehensive plan to support the local food system. That's in place now; the next step is implementing it.

What's the key to getting more local produce to market?

There are lots of passionate people; it's interesting how that passion gets translated into the marketplace, and that makes the farmers and ranchers consider the local market or brings new people in to grow for that. These new people, a lot of them don't come from an agriculture background. Around the country, people are interested in making a career change, or the market potential is so good they're jumping into farming.

If you do your marketing right for local sales you could be talking about making $25,000-$30,000 per acre. We have a few individuals who've confided that they're making that kind of money, because they're the first ones jumping onto this bandwagon. You go around the state to local farmers' markets, and you don't find many real farmers.

Why not?

I get calls from the guy at the St. Pete farmers' market saying, "I can guarantee these people $10,000 on a Saturday morning if they bring their produce." It's that kind of money that the regular [small- and medium-sized farm] community has no concept of; it's not in their experience. They tell us they don't believe they can make that much marketing their own product to the community.

People who come from a farming tradition, in many respects just don't get it. They expect to make a few hundred dollars per acre selling to the big companies. We need newcomers to come and demonstrate that this type of business is viable.

How are you getting people to embrace the pastoral lifestyle?

We're trying to run as many training programs across the state as we can. Right now we can't find enough people to get into this business. I also coordinate a regional network of small and organic farmers. The network of growers I have here, there's only one other in the state. In other areas there's no system where these people can meet or get to know the community.

We're bringing our resources to their farms; we meet on their farms; we let the farmers teach other farmers and us how they do things. We're making progress and making these things happen, with some great success stories.

What are some of the stumbling blocks that you see?

That's where patience comes in. When I get a call about finding local grass-fed cattle, I see how the local food system has been dismantled over the past few decades. You can't get the Florida Department of Agriculture behind this local foods stuff.

I'm trying to find any agency in the state that can help. Other states are making accommodations for small production. Our Department of Agriculture is not. The ironic thing is that the USDA has more flexibility than our state regulations.

We're working on a big conference for 2009, and one of the goals of this conference is to help local small agriculture to form a coalition and have a voice, to go to Tallahassee and be part of the conversation. Right now, nobody there hears small farmers.

It seems that most of your job is bringing the right people together at the right time.

Day to day I'm just connecting the dots. I'll be taking Whole Foods to meet ranchers in three counties to talk about transitioning into organic grass-fed cattle for their markets. ... Again, it would be nice if our ag department was behind this and providing their resources, but we haven't been able to catch their attention.

Why is it so difficult to find local foods in restaurants and markets?

Processing is a huge challenge. For the Farms to Schools program, we have High Hat Ranch in Sarasota and Allen Jones potato farm in Manatee. They can grow anything the schools need, but I don't have the opportunity to give them the processing they need to meet school-district requirements.

What are you excited about in the coming years?

We have growers out there saying "Gosh, you mean I can finally grow these other things, not just what the brokers tell me they want?' There are players out there who are looking at the same numbers that brought Whole Foods to town. It's very encouraging. There's going to be a lot more local foods available.

But, it's a very slow process. I'm glad I'm a patient person.

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