Looking For Local, Organic Food? There's A Virtual Solution
By RICHARD MULLINS
Article from Tampa Bay Online
Susan Bishop walks the grassy field of her small, family ranch outside Wimauma in flip-flops, pointing out a dozen cows and steers with names like "Hershey," "Leona," and "Heinz 57."
"We named that one Heinz because he came with a No. 57 tag on him," jokes Bishop, a former welder from Clearwater and now the environmentally minded manager of her family's 90-acre ranch, called My Mother's Garden.
Photos of the cattle go online, almost like online dating Web sites. Most will ultimately get a trip to the slaughterhouse. Price: $1,200 apiece, cut into fillets, T-bones or ground beef - which can be twice as expensive as beef from a wholesaler.
Still learning her way through ranching, Bishop is among a small group of local farmers and ranchers trying to boost their revenue by bypassing big wholesalers and grocery stores and selling directly to a growing pool of consumers and restaurants that want to buy locally.
For farmers, this can mean taking a creative marketing approach, posting photos online of specific animals for sale. It also means taking creative approaches to federal and state food regulations.
For example, state law prohibits a dairy from selling raw, unpasteurized milk, or any milk without a state license - for human consumption. But customers can buy raw milk that's labeled "pet food." Or city-dwellers can buy a "share" of an individual cow and take its milk.
"If you know your farmer is doing the right thing, you should be able to buy from them directly," Bishop said. "That's what we're trying to do."
It's a wink-and-nod selling system that's similar to Florida's fireworks rules, which allow people buy explosives for the Fourth of July if they promise to use them only for "agricultural" purposes.
Bishop, for example, set up a careful system to get her grass-fed beef to her customers legally. Bishop sends customers e-mail alerts about individual steers as they become available.
Customers then contact her online and purchase a whole steer. Bishop sends the steer to a private, family-owned slaughterhouse in Plant City, which processes the animal and custom-packages the meat for the customer to pick up. The customer pays the slaughter fee and the cut-and-wrap fee to the slaughterhouse, not to Bishop.
As long as Bishop and the customer set the price (and not the slaughterhouse) and as long as the beef doesn't end up in a retail environment, everything is legal. By taking this route, Bishop can sometimes generate twice the revenue from a single animal, compared to selling it wholesale to the general market for cattle.
Pamela Lunn takes a similar roundabout approach to selling goat's milk from her Dancing Goat farm.
She and her husband started raising goats for milk after their jobs as road engineers ended amid the downturn after the Sept. 11 attacks. Now they hand-milk 14 goats twice a day at a leased farm near Odessa. (She also keeps about 400 organic chickens outside Tampa.) Lunn's daughter markets the Dancing Goat milk on the social networking site MySpace.com, complete with goat milking videos.
Because the milk isn't pasteurized, it can't be labeled for human consumption. Instead, they call it something else.
"I label it correctly as pet food, but what people do with it is their own business," Lunn says. She understands the purpose of federal food laws to prevent food-borne illnesses. But she contends most of the outbreaks happen at large-scale agribusinesses, and if farmers raise food correctly, and customers want to buy it directly, they should have the freedom to do so.
While the milk is unpasteurized, it still attracted Tom Miller of Westchase, who bought a pint of Lunn's goat milk at a recent farmer's market. "I love goat's milk," Miller says. "I used to drink it in college when a friend had a dairy, but I haven't been able to find it anywhere since."
If the process sounds cumbersome, farmers can count on a few trends in their favor. First, with Web sites so easy to build, individual farmers have new ways to promote themselves.
Florida Organic Pork in Parrish, for instance, posts periodic photos of their pigs, including one shot with a litter of nine new piglets. Whole hogs cost $450, yielding about 120 to 140 pounds of meat, or a half hog for $250, yielding 60 to 70 pounds.
Plus, there's more interest among consumers to buy locally produced goods, both to support local farmers and to cut down on the energy used to transport food - spawning their own lingo: "farm to plate," "eat local," and "localvore," meaning one who eats locally produced food.
More consumers, meanwhile, are bucking social convention and looking to buy more food they see as naturally produced - such as chickens, pigs, goats and grass-fed cows kept in large open areas, instead of the feed pens typical of large commercial ranches.
For example, Eckerd College in St. Petersburg recently started adding more locally grown food to its student cafeteria, and participates in the regular "Eat Local Challenge," a national event aimed at eating food from local farms.
"It's not easy at all, but we keep working on it," said Jamie Llovera, general manager of food service at the college. Over four years, he's managed to build the share of locally made food to 25 percent of the total volume, including Portobello mushrooms, lemons, avocados and mangos.
Farmers also can access the growing Washington area-based Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which holds regular seminars for farmers and even sends out refrigerator magnets to promote their hot line. The message: If a regulator shows to shut down your farm, dial the hot line and hand them the phone.
Meanwhile, several more farmers markets are starting up in the region, including one in Westchase and one soon to open in downtown Tampa, potentially adding more avenues for local farmers to reach customers.
Recently, an agricultural economist, John Matthews of Sarasota, established the Suncoast Food Alliance to serve as a bridge between restaurants and local farmers.
"Chefs tend to have a greener mindset than the average citizen, I've found," Matthews said. "They look at their carbon footprint and many believe the most nutritious time for food is within three days of the harvest. We've been able to go from order to deliver in 24 hours, and our farmers don't harvest until I call them."
So far, he's signed up 15 restaurants in the Sarasota area, and is looking to recruit Tampa restaurants. For farms, he estimates they can earn between 30 and 40 percent more by selling meat and vegetables directly to restaurants, compared to wholesalers.
"There are more farms that want to get involved," Matthews said. "Now it's a matter of keeping up with it."
DeHoWa Farms: grass-fed beef
floridagrassfedbeef.com; (813) 839-8861, ext.4; [email protected]
My Mother's Garden: grass-fed beef, pork, organic produce
Mymothersgarden.com; [email protected]
Suncoast Food Alliance: connects consumers with local farmers, ranchers
www.suncoastfoodalliance.com; (941) 284-3384; [email protected]
Dancing Goat Farm: goat's milk, eggs, bread
Campaign For Real Milk: advocates unpasteurized milk
Eatwild.com: online directory of beef, poultry, dairy and other foods
Eatwild.com; [email protected]; (866) 453-8489
Rosas Farms: beef, bison, pork, eggs and other products
www.rosasfarms.com; [email protected]; (352) 620-2737
Sweetwater Organic Community Farm: nonprofit educational farm
"The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan
Popular book on food sources and organic food movement
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Regulates, inspects and certifies food from producers.
Hillsborough County Extension Service/ Sarasota County Extension
Provides guidance to residents and farmers on agriculture
Eat Local Challenge
Community organization advocating local sourcing of food
Weston A. Price Foundation
Nonprofit advocacy group for small, local farmers
Farm-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund
(703) 208-FARM (3276)
Operates legal defense hot line for farmers
Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919 or [email protected].