Small Farmers Mean BIG Business


Sewing and Reaping the Knowledge for Success

Small farms have always existed, but in Florida, they historically represented a less visible portion of the agriculture industry.  Demand has sparked new opportunities, however, and a more definitive view of this agricultural segment has surfaced.

Small farmers have new opportunities from consumer demand, experts say, and support is being provided for them in new ways.  There is heightened awareness of this essential industry, which includes about 44,000 families.  A designated website provides resources and education and these opportunities have brought statewide conferences.

What exactly is a small farm?  Robert Hochmuth, multi-county extension agent for the University of Florida/IFAS North Florida Research & Education Center, provides a definition. “The USDA defines a small farm as one that has gross annual sales of $250,000 or less,” he says.  “The small farm debate traditionally has been over the value of sales versus the land area of the farm.”

“This is because very high value enterprises or products such as greenhouse ornamentals or vegetables, cut flowers, or culinary herbs can easily have a value of more than $250,000 on less than five or 10 acres.  Because Florida has so many opportunities for producing high value products, the classification based on gross sales value is much more appropriate,” he explains.

Therefore, based on the USDA definition, 90 percent of the more than 40,000 farms in Florida are small farms.  The other common characteristic is that they are family-oriented, and dependent upon the family for management and labor, he notes.  The USDA further classifies small farms based on the primary motivation of the family for farming.  These categories include: primary income, retirement, lifestyle, or limited resources.

Some 750 of these farmers, and industry professionals – including about 16 from Polk County – attended the state’s second Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Conference in Kissimmee at Osceola Heritage Park July 31 and August 1.

A rising demand for information led to the organization of the annual event to bring small farmers together.  The conference provided education, exhibition and networking, and was hosted by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Florida A&M University’s College of Engineering Sciences, Technology and Agriculture.

The need for a larger annual conference became apparent after regional small farms conferences began in 2006.  At least a dozen regional conferences have been held annually, and many other county or local programs are also underway.  These programs have proven popular, and have been attended by thousands annually.

Organizers began to question how it might be possible to take information provision to the next level.  One of cited reasons for the launch of the annual conference is that while regional educational programs were successful in satisfying many educational needs, all Florida small farmers face similar challenges. Such issues as economics, rising regulatory pressures, and marketing challenges could be addressed if farmers came together to strive to identify solutions and strengthen the small farm community in the state.

The objective, organizers agree, was for the activities to help facilitate networking, dialog, and visioning among members of the Florida small farms community.  Also, it is important to increase awareness of the small farms industry to decision makers, supporting institutions, and the general public.  Increasing interests in small farms made the conference a successful endeavor.  “It’s a phenomenon across the country,” says Robert Kluson, a county extension agent who helped plan the conference.  “The visibility is up, and new people are getting into agriculture.  We had a real eclectic, diversified group of people at the conference.”

More than 100 speakers, about 30 educational sessions, and more than 90 dealer exhibits, along with awards, livestock displays and networking opportunities were provided at this year’s conference.  Topics ranged from hot production trends such as grass-fed beef and aquaponics, to innovative marketing via social networking and community supported agriculture, to new technologies for growing and protecting crops.

A website – http://smallfarms.ifas.ufl.edu  – has also been developed by the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and Florida A & M University (FAMU) to provide information on a wide variety of alternative enterprises, how to get started on the small farm, and a calendar of events specifically for small farmers. It receives more than 70,000 hits a month, and is a useful tool in the big business of small farming.

CREDITS

story by MARY TOOTHMAN

photo by RYAN WALLS

Conference site:

http://smallfarms.ifas.ufl.edu/floridasmallfarmsconference/2010

Small farms site:

http://smallfarms.ifas.ufl.edu