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Ag Census: Fla. Has Most Farms Since 1950s; Farmers Are Getting Older

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Jessica Palombo
/
WFSU News

For the first time in more than 30 years, Florida is gaining acres of farmland rather than losing them. But as more areas are planted or devoted to livestock, the average age of farmers has gone up. And some in the local food movement are working to break down barriers keeping new farmers from getting in the game.

It’s drop-off day for farmers who belong to Tallahassee’s Red Hills Online Market. Turkey Hill Farm owner Louise Devine is unloading orders customers placed through the group’s website over the past few days.

“This week there’s kale and shitake mushrooms and shallots,” she says, rattling off a long list.

The online market started about four years ago, connecting growers within 100 miles of the city directly with customers, who’ll pick up produce and meat here or have it delivered to their homes. Everything from honey to lamb gets delivered to a central location for distribution.

The online market has been so successful that the drop-off point had to move out of the back of a food co-op and into its own warehouse last month. Co-manager Katie Harris says it’s helped her 5-year-old Gadsden County Full Earth Farm be able to grow from two acres to a planned five acres.

“I can be at the beach having a great time and be at the farmer’s market at the same time,” Harris says. “So that’s a big deal. It gives us a little boost in the middle of the week.”

She says the direct line to customers overcomes a problem small-time operations have when they don’t produce enough volume to be carried in large supermarkets.

And just as the market has steadily added farms over the past five years, a new national agricultural census shows Florida now has more farms operating than it has since the early 1950s, adding farmland in almost two-thirds of its counties since 2007.

Florida Department of Agriculture researcher Dan Sleep says, “In Florida, if you get in your car and drive, I would imagine you can be to a farm in 10 minutes or less anywhere in this state.”

He says the past decade or so had been rough on agriculture. But things are rebounding now.

“We could almost anticipate growth in farms should have probably been pitched downward,” he says. “But it didn’t. So they’re resilient, they’re learning, they’re getting better.”

But online market manager Harris says wannabe farmers still face an uphill battle.

“For young people I think the hardest thing is land access. Owning land is easy for people who have had a career and have money and have capital and all those things. But for young people, they don’t have that,” she says.

Just ask Claire Mitchell and Danielle Krasniqi. The not-yet-30-year-old business partners own Ten-Speed Greens, a successful Tallahassee urban farm supplying produce to 13 restaurants. It’s their livelihood. But the plot of land they’d planted doesn’t belong to them, and a bank is selling it. So they’re shutting down this summer.

Mitchell says, “There’s no help really. There’s no governmental help of maybe linking up young farmers or beginning farmers with land or having some kind of financial loan programs or micro-grant programs to get started And also, where are young farmers going to learn how to do this anyway?”

As the census shows, the average age of a Florida farmer has risen slightly to 60.