Buy Local! Buy Seasonal!
Farm-to-table. The local food movement. Locavore. Urban farming. Buying in season. The buzzwords are becoming as ubiquitous as blackboard menus. What are local foods in South Florida? For that matter, where does "local" start and end? And why is it so important?
TO DEFINE WHAT "LOCAL" MEANS HERE TODAY REQUIRES A BRIEF LOOK at South Florida's farming history to set the stage. As early as the mid-1800s, settlers were planting pineapples in the Keys and Miami Shores, but it wasn't until the 1890s that largescale agriculture got its start when a devastating freeze drove many farmers farther south into South Florida. Encouraged by businesswoman Julia Tuttle, oil magnate Henry Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway to Miami – and with it came tourists and more business. Homesteaders who moved south into the Redland in the 1900s quickly discovered that growing crops was difficult because of the hard Miami limestone bed. Once one of the pioneers developed a rock plow that made planting easier, farmers were better able to work the land and plant row crops. By the 1930s, farmers were growing tropical fruit commercially. Meanwhile, refrigerated trucks were invented, allowing perishable foods to be transported over long distances.
The 1950s were considered the Golden Age of agriculture in the Redland. The national economy was booming and the Redland became known as the winter breadbasket, supplying winter produce and tomatoes to the rest of the country. Over the decades, disasters took their toll – the freeze of 1977 devastated crops; citrus canker wiped out much of the commercial citrus production; and Hurricane Andrew roared through Homestead, resulting in the inevitable changes faced by farmers daily.
Today, the Redland remains the source of winter vegetables in the United States, and a year-round source of tropical produce. But misconceptions remain about what is really grown here – what is "local" – and when it grows here. "A lot of people think citrus is our main crop," says Miami-Dade agriculture manager Charles LaPradd. But it is row crops – beans, sweet corn, squash, and tropical sweet potato, plus tomatoes, okra, eggplant, herbs and Asian vegetables – that are the principal crops today. And getting consumers to understand seasonality – when the produce they see in the markets could have been grown locally, or was shipped in from somewhere else – is an ongoing challenge. Some don't understand why they will not find South Florida-grown strawberries in the farmers market in July. Blame modern transportation and a global marketplace where we've grown accustomed to having what we want when we want it – despite South Florida's unique growing conditions. "We are fortunate to have a year-round growing season," says LaPradd. "We just don't grow everything year-round."
Mangos and Bananas
Politics and the economics of global trade further complicate the confusion about the produce in our stores and markets. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the trade agreement allowing the free flow of produce between Canada, the United States and Mexico, "hasn't been kind to Dade County agriculture," says LaPradd. "It's very competitive." You won't find local mangos in your supermarket in the summer for a couple of reasons, he says. First, non-local mangos are cheaper. And the second can be explained with three words: hot water treatment. "The mangos we produce are tree ripened. The ones grown elsewhere [and found in supermarkets] are harvested when they're partially ripe and parboiled to kill pests," he says. "It's not the optimal mango, but it can have a long shelf life."
Americans have gotten accustomed to settling for less-than-tasty produce because supermarkets carry varieties that ship well and look attractive. The banana is a good example, says Art Friedrich of Urban Oasis Project, which provides local produce for farmers markets. "People love bananas. But they don't know that they're used to only one variety, Cavendish. It's been overfertilized, picked green to ship, then gassed to ripen from the outside at the packing house. But there are at least 90 other varieties of bananas. They may be smaller, they ripen differently – and they have a much richer flavor."
Getting your fruits and vegetables from faraway places can take even longer because of Florida's geography. "Our location dangling at the end of the mainland (and for the Keys, even worse) means that everything travels longer distances and time to get here," says Margie Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm. "The end result is often a product of lower quality and less flavor," while local produce is fresher, most likely more nutritious and thus healthier, she says.
The Price of Local
That inferior product, however, may well cost less than its local counterpart – leading to another consumer misconception about local food. "They think it should be cheaper," says Pikarsky. "On the face of it, that makes sense. But it's not necessarily true." First, there's less and less land for agriculture. "For us here, unbridled development is not good. The more land you take out of production, the less local food you can have, and the more dependent we become on food brought in."
Figured into local produce costs are the high prices of land and labor, compared to international farms that exploit labor, Friedrich says. "Costs do reflect what farmers need to charge to make a living." Melissa Contreras, also of Urban Oasis Project, agrees. "We can't make it as cheap as we'd like to because imported labor is cheaper. If people buy U.S.-grown produce, you create demand, giving American farmers a chance to stay in business."
Agricultural industrialization has cost South Florida's farm community its heritage, skills and support, all the more reason for consumers to turn to local suppliers, says Mark Menagh, manager of Yellow Green Farmers Market. "Historically, South Florida was a diverse and growing agricultural community. By supporting the small producer, we are keeping the heirloom and specialty crops needed for our unique environment, keeping skills alive, and putting money in the most efficient basis of local economic productivity."
So What's Local?
Many will agree that local produce is tastier, healthier, fresher and better for local economy – even if it costs more. Not all agree, however, on what local means. Nowhere is this more evident in the farmers markets, where produce stands range from only-local – which either close during summer and early fall, or sell avocados, jackfruit, starfruit, tropical tubers and not much else – to those that also sell items like apples, pears and asparagus, which are never local to South Florida.
Carlos Fernandez of Coconut Grove Farms grows avocados and papaya, and during the winter sells sustainable or certified organic fruits and vegetables. He also sells "extended local" produce from the Carolinas and certified organic produce from as far afield as California, including apples. "The reason I believe deeply in selling apples are because of my 2-year-old son. He loves apples. But red delicious apples have thick skin. They're not tasty. So I find heirloom varieties – Spitzenberg, Winesap, Arkansas black – that taste really good. Apples are a great talking point. Markets need to do things that supermarkets cannot do – offer funky, colorful produce and look for texture and flavor."
Some produce vendors supplement what they grow with non-local fruits and vegetables in the summer. Jerry Sanchez, a second-generation farmer whose stand has been a fixture at markets in Pinecrest and Coral Gables, grows tomato, corn, peppers, kale, garlic and other crops and sells them in season. When his customers ask where his produce comes from, he always tells them that "even off season, produce is straight from the farm in different places in Florida, then it moves on state to state." He hates that some people assume he doesn't grow any of his own produce. But he isn't discouraged. "My whole family were growers and farm workers since 1956," he says. "This is what I love."
"Local is always going to be a tough question for South Florida," says Menagh of Yellow Green. "The farmers at our market are allowed to resell, specifically so they can continue to have income year-round. For us, supporting our farmers is as important as providing a variety of products to our customers. They sell their produce alongside their farming neighbors produce and imported product, but they are immensely proud of what they grow and will gladly explain what is theirs and isn't."
Don't think that big supermarkets, with their tremendous buying power and reach, are ignoring this relatively small market segment calling for local food. "People are paying a lot more attention to where their food comes from," says Russ Benblatt, spokesman for Whole Foods Market in Florida. "Just because a farm can't produce enough for us doesn't mean that we shouldn't support them. In our stores, the 'local' sign means Florida. Our new maps divide the state into south, central and north."
Their support goes even farther. Whole Foods Markets helps local producers with low-interest loans, and advice on packaging and regulations, doing "what we can to help them get to market." They host CSA pickups. Their Pembroke Pines store is the site of a new farmers market in the parking lot, an idea suggested by a customer. Isn't that supporting the competition? "Yes, it is!" says Benblatt, laughing. "But it's at the core of who we are. A business can do well by doing good. We have a mission to support and promote the community and small family business."
Local supermarkets also participate in the Redland Raised program. During late October through March, "we source produce from the Redland and identify it with Redland Raised signage," says Publix spokesperson Kim Reynolds. "Buying local allows us to invest in our local economy, provide the freshest fruits and vegetables and work toward reducing our carbon footprint."
Eating All Local
There are vast differences in personal philosophy and practical application. Those who pledge to follow an all-local South Florida diet will feast in the winter, but face little variety in the summer.
At the local-only end of the locavore spectrum is goat farmer Hani Khouri, who prefers using the word "foodshed" to describe a region that produces the food for a particular population. For him, this area extends up to Orlando, where he gets eggs, pastured grass-fed meat and chickens. Otherwise, he eats produce only from South Florida, including his own goat milk and cheese. "I am satisfied eating what's local," he says, but advises others to practice moderation. "Be reasonable. You have to do what's good for you."
Friedrich says he's "very satisfied with rolling with the seasons here. I don't feel a great need to supplement my diet with faraway stuff." He will track down North Florida blueberries, muscadine grapes and scuppernongs, and leafy greens from South Carolina. Jonathan
Gambino of Three Sisters Farm in Homestead is proud to offer at his farm what he calls the zero-mile meal using heirloom fruits, vegetables and tropical roots: "It's the essence of sustainability. When I heard other chefs using this mile meter in reference to how local their menus were, I thought, my meal was seeded by me under this fruit tree, which is 300 feet tops to the kitchen." To Gambino, "Florida is huge and we need to redefine 'local' to mean our towns and neighborhoods. Local is our backyards."
Margie Pikarsky takes a more moderate approach. "I will buy a kiwi that feels ripe, cherries at peak of season (but look for Michigan or Washington) and good-looking greens using the same rules. I try to freeze, dry, pickle, jam or otherwise preserve local goodies to eat when out of season. Let your diet change to accommodate local cycles. It will likely mean eating a lot more tropical fruit in the summertime, and a lot more veggies in the winter. That's OK. Get creative!"
Taking Local Everywhere
How can local produce – fresher, tastier, but sometimes more expensive – reach those who may need it most: low-income communities with little access to supermarkets? Melissa Contreras says Urban Oasis Project is working on a number of programs to accomplish just that. They are starting the planting season at Verde Gardens, home of 145 formerly homeless families, by growing familiar vegetables and tropical fruits. "We're pragmatists," she says. "Our goal is to produce as much food as we can for the community and beyond."
Another new project starting in November is a mobile farmers market, funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture, featuring local and Florida-grown fruits and vegetables. "We're targeting areas where people are low income and have low access to a vehicle: Liberty City/Brownsville, the Jessie Trice Community Health Center, the Carrie Meek Entrepreneurial Education Center," among other areas, Contreras says. They will take EBT (food stamps) and credit/debit cards. "When we're not in neighborhoods, we'll use the van to deliver produce from Verde Gardens."
Community gardens, another source of local produce, can be urban, suburban or rural and may include produce grown for markets or for individuals. Ground was broken in Sept. for Flagler Village Community Garden in Fort Lauderdale, which will be "not only a place to claim a plot to grow your own food, but to come for free educational workshops and to connect with your neighbors in a beautiful modern green space," says president Chad Scott.
In Oakland Park, the two-acre Urban Farm Park at Jaco Pastorius Park is in the works. "We hope to have our hydroponic farm installed and ready in January for the spring growing season," says Stephen Hill of The Urban Farmer.
Community garden plots are also planned for installation in spring, and by fall 2014, both the hydroponic farm and community garden plots should be verdant, he says. "With so many restaurants working to provide some locally grown food, I think the Farm Park will be a natural attraction and great asset for the Culinary District. It will be a place where the chefs and owners can get connected with the growing of food and with other farms and farmers who are partners with us in supplying the Patio Market."
Farmers Markets Here to Stay
As consumers care more about connecting with farmers, shopping habits are changing and farmers markets are filling those needs. Smaller markets let buyers get to know their suppliers and join in by selling their own backyard produce at no charge. One of those is the Miami Springs farmers market, a neighborhood market in its second year. "We'll have a signup sheet at the opening day market," says Sarah Vargas. Markets with a healthy balance of food artisans are also a key part of a successful equation. "Over the past five years, many artisans have emerged, and I think that is a trend that will continue," says Claire Tomlin of The Market Company, a longtime producer of popular South Florida farmers markets. "Young people love being creative and independent. Many couples are working together to develop their own brand and small business." Annick Sternberg, co-founder of the Southwest Community market, sees the markets as a valuable way of building community. "It's not just a place to shop, but a place to catch up with your neighbors, have a snack and a chat. We'd like to see visiting the farmers market as much a regular part of your Saturday morning routine as going for a manicure or a bike ride."
WHY SUPPORT LOCAL?
- Local produce may have been picked that morning. It doesn't lose as many nutrients in shipping.
- Local produce tastes better because it's fresher. The more time it takes to get from harvest to your table, sugars turn to starches and plant cells shrink.
- Locally grown food saves energy, conserving packaging and shipping.
- You're supporting local farm families who sell to you. This cuts out the middle people, 80 farmers get more for their crops and can afford to continue farming.
- Buying local produce helps protect genetic diversity. Local farmers grow many varieties for taste and color, not just those that ship easily or have a long shelf life.
- You're helping preserve our agricultural landscape. If farms are financially viable, they can sulVive and not be sold for development.
- You're supporting culture and tradition.
Fresher. Tastier. Better.
Know your FARMER Know your FOOD
What better way to know what you're eating and where it comes from than visiting the source?
Some local farms open their gates to the public during open houses. Marian Wertalka, who chronicles life at Bee Heaven Farm in her blog, Redland Rambles, says visiting the farm is like going to a whole different world:
Early in the season, visitors will see rows of fresh green young plants coming up. Lettuces are so pretty, in all shades of green, from a bright light yellow green to a deeper green edged with burgundy, all in tidy rows. Heirloom tomato plants are about a couple feet tall, tied to trellis, and the vines look fresh and hopeful. The sky seems bigger in Redland, and the air seems sweeter. You'll hear birds twittering and the roar of the tractor, as people go for rides on the hay wagon. On Farm Day, Margie sets up a farm stand with all kinds of veggies that are currently available. She grows at least two or three varieties of radishes, as pretty as jewels. Last year, vegan chef Keith Kalmanowicz was invited to make dishes from strictly local ingredients, and he and his staff did a great job whipping up soup, salad and a main dish. Usually there's a local singer providing entertainment, and tables are set up with straw bales as seats where people can eat and listen to music. Everybody brings their kids, and they're all running around and playing, or busy building a scarecrow out of plastic pipe, straw and old clothes. It's a great day to relax in the sun, away from the city. Farm Day is a great way to remind people where their food comes from, to help them make the connection between this patch of ground, at this latitude, and this time of year.
Bee Heaven Farm – beeheavenfarm.com
Sun., Dec. 22 – Annual Farm Day
Marando Farms – marandofarms.com
Tours are conducted on Tuesdays, Thursdays and some weekends.
Paradise Farms – paradisefarms.net
Farm Tours on Sundays Nov. 3, Dec. 1, Jan. 5, 2014, Feb. 2, Mar. 2, Apr. 6, May 4
Teena's Pride – teenaspridecsa.com
Open House on Sundays Nov. 3 – Featuring chef Ariana Kumpis; Dec. 1 – Featuring chef Aaron Brooks; Jan. 5, 2014 – TBA; Feb. 2 – TBA; Mar. 2 – Featuring Chef Paulette Bilsky; Apr. 6 – TBA; May 4 -- Annual Family Day – Featuring chef Ariana Kumpis
Support Your ARTISANS • Bringing You Fresh Delicious Food Daily
When you buy honey, preserves, ice cream, pickles and other products made locally, you're supporting champions of local ingredients who happily put their heart and soul into their work. Here are just a few of South Florida's many food artisans and their products, available at farmers markets, through CSAs, in retail markets and gift shops.
BAKED GOODS Farmers markets often feature empanada bakers, cupcake vendors and stands for retail bakeries.
Crackerman Crackers – Artisanal sourdough bread and crackers
Illegal Bakery – Macarons, cakes, biscuits, scones
Laurie's Pantry – Homemade gourmet granola
Om Nom Nom – Vegan cookies
Simply Sharon – Vegan, gluten-free, organic desserts and snacks
Zak the Baker – Organic sourdough bread
HONEY If you were to buy only one local product, make it raw honey from South Florida beekeepers. In recent years, testing has shown that some honey sold in U.S. grocery stores has been filtered to remove the pollen, while pasteurization destroys beneficial enzymes. Raw honey has antibacterial properties and when bottled and stored properly will never go bad. Depending on their floral sources, honeys taste different. In Florida, these include avocado, gallflower, mangrove, orange blossom and wildflower. Finally, you're supporting local beekeepers and crops that depend on insect pollination.
Bees 'N the Keys – Raw local wildflower and flavored honeys
Honey-Bee-Z-Ness – Raw local honeys, royal jelly, pollen, beeswax
Miguel Bode – Local wildflower honey
Siggi's Organic Farm & Apiary – Raw honey from South, Central and North Florida
The Tattooed Homestead – Local raw honey, beeswax, soaps, balms
DAIRY, ICE CREAM & SORBET Look for these brands in farmers markets, retail stores and in restaurants. Many flavors are made from local fruits.
Azucar Ice Cream Company (Little Havana) – Housemade ice creams and sorbets
Gaby's Farm – Tropical fruit ice creams and sorbets
Hani's Mediterranean Organics – Fresh goat milk, goat cheese and goat milk ice cream
Feverish Gourmet Pops (Midtown) – Handcrafted popsicles
Pop Nature – Natural,popsicles
Roc Kat Ice Cream Co. – Small-batch ice creams and sorbets
JAMS, JELLIES, PRESERVES, CONDIMENTS Enjoy the fruits of these artisans' labors all year round. These also make ideal gifts for out-of-towners looking for a taste of the tropics.
Copperpot's – Housemade sriracha
Florida Keys Sea Salt – Salt hand-harvested from the ocean
Freakin' Flamingo – Tropical fruit preserves, sugar-free jams
Mae's Mango Mondo – Preserves and hot sauces
Pickleberry – Fruit jams and jellies
Pika Sauce – Savory pepper-based condiment
Rochelois Jams – Tropical jams and chutneys
MEATS Butcher shops went into decline as supermarkets offered convenient packaged meats, but today the art of charcuterie, curing, smoking and sausage making is undergoing a revival.
Babe Froman Fine Sausages – Sausages and bacon
Miami Smokers – Cured and smoked pork products
Novae Gourmet – Handcrafted jerky
Proper Sausages (Miami Shores) – Fresh sausages and housemade bacon, beef, poultry
WINE & BEER Florida is home to at least 16 wineries, but most are located in Central and North Florida. Find "Drink Like a Local" on Facebook for Florida breweries. (Turn to Uncapping Beer on page 13 for more.)
Schnebly Redland's Winery & Brewery – Wines made from mango, lychee, guava, passion fruit and carambola; beers at Miami Brewing Company use fruits, spices and herbs.
EAT on the FARM • Fresh & Wholesome • Farm-to-Table at its BEST
Farm-to-table meals don't get closer than these regular dinners held right where produce is harvested. Jonathan Gambino of Three Sisters Farm, a fruit orchard that serves farm meals every Saturday during the growing season, says the menu is based on what's ripe and flavorful. He describes a typical meal: "When you arrive, you are greeted with one of the many tropical juices or coconuts we grow. Then you are treated to a guided tour of the farm, which includes a trek to visit all the crops featured in the farm meal. You will get a sense of what it really looks like to be surrounded by a jungle of food. During the tour you can pick fresh berries, taste our tomatoes off the vine, pull up carrots, take photos next to giant plantains or jackfruits and harvest whatever is abundant to take home. Then you are led to your table in our giant tiki hut overlooking the crops and, if you timed your reservation right, you'll watch the sunset and cheers to some wine you brought yourself." Gambino adds: "All a farmer's hard work and energy is wasted if the end result of his labors aren't enjoyed. We feel like our guests really enjoy themselves out here and get a new perspective of local flavors and tastes."
Paradise Farms – paradisefarms.net
Brunch in Paradise: Sun., Oct. 27 – Chefs Julie Frans and Amber Antonelli; Sun., Nov. 24 – Chefs Julie Frans and Amber Antonelli; Sun., Apr. 20, 2014 – Chef Amber Antonelli; Sat., May 10 – Chef Julie Frans; Sun., May 11 (Mother's Day) – Chef Mary Siragusa
Dinner in Paradise: Sun., Nov. 17 – Chefs Jamie DeRosa, Todd Erickson, Lauren DeShields; Sun., Dec. 8 – Chefs Philippe Reynaud, George Patti, Richard Smith, Jouvens Jean, Joe Wiktorek; Sun., Jan. 12 – Chefs Wolfgang Birk, Dewey LoSasso, Tony Mantuano, James Versfelt; Sun., Jan 26 – Chefs Cesar Zapata, Clay Conley, Kris Wessel; Sat., Feb. 8 – Chefs, Johnson & Wales; Sat., Mar. 15 – Chefs Jose Luis Flores, Alex Feher, Eric Do; Sun., Mar. 23 – Chefs Julie Frans, Giorgio Rapicavoli; Sun., Apr. 6 – Chefs Timon Baloo, David Bracha, Aaron Brooks; Sun., Apr. 13 – Chefs Sean Brasel, Mark Zeitouni, Jose Mendin; Sun., Apr. 27 – Chefs Sergio Sigala, Angelo Masarin, Alberto Cabrera
Earth-n-Us – loveandveggies.com
Three Sisters Farm – threesistersfarm.com: Saturdays Oct.-May
Visit the GARDEN Today
Edible Garden Festival
Sat., Oct. 26 and Sun., Oct. 27 Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden − fairchildgarden.com. This year's festival is part of Earth Learning's Local Food Week and features cooking demos, edible gardening workshops, a fall beer garden, lectures and tours.
Sat., Oct. 26, noon-6pm Downtown Fort Lauderdale. Take a tour of some of Broward's community gardens in this mobile festival traveling to farms and community gardens. The event starts at noon at Marando Farms and moves to Andrews Farm, NW Gardens Community Garden, Sistrunk Community Garden and ends at FAT Village ARTWalk.
Althea's Garden Party
Sun., Nov. 17, 1-4 Merrick House, Coral Gables. Chef Norman Van Aken will do a demo and tasting from his new memoir, No Experience Necessary; farmer Teena Borek will have heirloom tomato and vegetable starts and herbs; master gardeners and food trucks will be on hand, and there will be live banjo music.
Sun., Nov. 24, 11-4 Miami Beach Botanical Garden − mbgarden.org. One-day market highlights local artisans and crafters selling botanically themed or derived products, local farmers market, food artisans, live music, yoga class and food trucks.
From FARM to YOU
To join a local CSA, you sign up to buy a share, like a subscription, of the season's harvest, generally before the season begins, though some offer summer shares. Members receive regular boxes of fresh produce during the growing season. Produce buying clubs supply locally harvested produce, but go farther afield depending on what's available seasonally.
Bee Heaven Farm (Pickups in Miami-Dade, Florida Keys) beeheavenfarm.com
Little River CSA (sold out for 2013-2014) littlerivercsa.com
Marando Farms (Broward) marandofarms.com
Teenas Pride CSA (Pickups in Miami-Dade, S. Broward, Florida Keys) teenaspridecsa.com/join-us
Treehugger Organic Farms (Starting Jan. 2014) treehuggerorganicfarms.com
The Urban Farmer (Broward) theurbanfarmerflorida.com
PRODUCE BUYING CLUBS
Endlessly Organic – (Miami-Dade, Broward, South Palm Beach) endlesslyorganic.com
Farm Fresh Miami (Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach) farmfreshmiami.com
Once Upon a Carrot (Miami-Dade) onceuponacarrot.org
Organic Grown Direct (Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach) organicgrowndirect.com