Agri Leader

Florida's local food movement ranks among the bottom

I guess it's hard to think locally when you're acting globally. You surely have heard the stats before about Florida's ranking as a national and international agricultural leader for citrus fruit, tomatoes and other produce items. Some of you probably drive past acres of fields on a daily basis and see evidence of Florida's agricultural market dominance. The state's Fresh from Florida logo and marketing campaign can be spotted on food items from the state sold around the nation. So I read with interest a recent report that ranks Florida almost at the bottom of the heap - only ahead of Texas - in its commitment to local foods. The Vermont-based local food advocacy group Strolling of the Heifers - named for a parade of farm animals that occurs in Brattleboro, Vt., in June - released a couple of months ago its second annual Locavore Index, which ranked the 50 states and Washington, D.C., on their commitment to local foods.
The organization gathered data tracking farmers markets, consumer-supported agriculture (CSAs), and food hubs - the latter of which represents facilities that distribute and market foods from a group of local farms and food producers in a given area. And the winners are. Any guesses at the five top-ranked states this year? Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Iowa. And the bottom five states? Texas was last, followed by Florida, Louisiana, Arizona and Nevada. Vermont's number-one ranking is not so surprising to me, although I did find it interesting that nutty-crunchy California was not higher on the list (number 42!). It also appears to me as if many Southeastern states appear in the bottom rankings, although they're joined by states like Utah, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Nevada. Florida ranked in the second-to-last spot in last year's Locavore Index as well. Personally, I was surprised by the results, but I realize I'm biased. I write a column (the one you're reading now) on local agriculture. I enjoy shopping at markets with fancy names that sell overpriced but delicious locally-sourced foods. For bargains and for story leads, I regularly visit farmers markets and roadside stands. According to Strolling of the Heifers, Vermont's No. 1 ranking reflects the state's "agricultural heritage and the state's economic strategies, which place a high priority on initiatives related to food and agriculture." Arguably, you could say the same thing about Florida. However, although Florida has a rich farming history, I realize that we may have come to the local-food movement later in the game than other states. Florida has focused for a long time on national and even international distribution of its famous food items. That's the reason why farmers market managers have told me time and time again they are always searching for farm vendors. Supporting local food has a few benefits, according to Strolling of the Heifers (just had to use that name again). Local food is usually fresher and healthier, as it travels a shorter distance. It helps to support the local economy. It also promotes agri-tourism. Communities can raise interest in the local food movement by supporting farmers markets and CSAs and also by supporting farm-to-school programs and encouraging local hospitals, nursing homes, and supermarkets to buy from local farms, the organization reports. Next year's Locavore Index will include information from the 2012 Census of Agriculture undergoing review now from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We'll see how that affects Florida's small but growing local food movement.