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AGRItunity expo speakers from the Breakers talk up local produce

Barbera and Tim Carpenter tell Deb Hamilton of Wesley Chapel about their vertical planting system at the AGRItunity expo.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Barbera and Tim Carpenter tell Deb Hamilton of Wesley Chapel about their vertical planting system at the AGRItunity expo.

BROOKSVILLE — A world-famous resort in Palm Beach is connecting small farms to consumers and garnering good reviews by both groups.

Two administrators from the Breakers hotel shared their experiences Saturday with nearly 300 farmers and farm suppliers at the third annual AGRItunity conference, held for the first time at the Hernando County Fairgrounds. The presenters' aim: get others to follow their path.

With the Breakers' blessing, employees Richard Hawkins and Geoffrey Sagrans founded Localecopia. Localecopia is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring together crop producers, businesses and chefs throughout Palm Beach County to promote local selling and buying.

"Local produce is safer, more nutritious and (buying locally) supports the community," Hawkins said Saturday. "We want to organize local farmers to sell to local businesses."

The businesses include hotels, country clubs, restaurants and others in the hospitality industry, all of whom contribute to making that industry one of top-ranking employers and money generators in Florida, he said.

Sagrans added: "We want to eliminate the disconnect between the grower and consumer. People think food comes from Publix or Wal-Mart. It comes from you," he told local farmers during his keynote address.

The Breakers buys goods from 10 local farms to supply tables at its 10 restaurants serving guests in 540 rooms. The resort dates to 1894 and was built by Henry Flagler, who brought the railroad to Florida. It employs 1,900. Locally purchased food is augmented by harvests from the hotel's organic gardens.

Its menus note the insignia, Localecopia, on qualifying dishes. "We want to create a brand name," Sagrans said.

And the organization is willing to share it. The duo spent 18 months developing the program. They'll hand their blueprint to any group that wants to launch a similar endeavor.

Judging by questions from the audience, farmers are willing.

And, according to Hawkins, so are buyers.

"A lot of chefs would like to buy locally," he said, "but they don't know how to get in touch with growers."

Localecopia has responded to that need. On its Web site — localecopia.org — farmers can list without charge their products, and chefs can post their desires.

"This is your 'in' if you're a farmer," Sagrans told the growers. "We want to encourage local buying."

Localecopia wants consumers to buy Plant City strawberries rather than those grown in California, for example. "We need to support local business to keep communities going," Sagrans said.

The Breakers requires that local producers carry liability insurance. USDA inspection is not necessary for unprocessed consumables.

Saturday's conference was sponsored by the University of Florida Extension Service, which has helped spread the word about Localecopia.

Beth Gray can be reached at graybethn@earthlink.net.

AGRItunity expo speakers from the Breakers talk up local produce 01/25/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 25, 2009 7:06pm]
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