BUSHNELL — Four years ago, when the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service chose Hernando County for its regional AGRItunity conference, the daylong agenda of workshops and trade show focused on niche opportunities for small farm spaces.
Ideas introduced bore more patches of berries and small fruits, opened gates for pick-your-own customers, added ponds producing edible fish and promoted the pursuit of organic and conservation practices.
For its seventh edition, Friday and Saturday's AGRItunity 2013 conference will respond to growing queries about what to do with the new and increased output from local farms.
"It's not the production aspect they're worried about," said Hernando County extension director Stacy Strickland. "Now it's, 'What do I do with the products I produce, and what is the way I can get paid more?' "
The annual conference — aimed at farmers in Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Sumter and Pasco counties — has attracted such interest and audiences, it has moved to the large West Central Florida Agriculture Education Center in Bushnell.
Friday's all-day farm tour across Sumter County will take participants to a feed milling operation and to goat dairy, sod, horse, fruit and vegetable farms.
Also on Friday afternoon, an aquaponics workshop will include a lecture followed by a visit to Green Acre Organics, east of Brooksville. A commercial aquaponics enterprise, Green Acre combines vegetable with fish farming, utilizing conservation practices.
Billed as a conference highlight on Saturday, keynote speaker Sheri Salatin of Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia will address the topic of interest to area farmers: "Be the Middleman: Catch and Keep Those Elusive Profits."
Salatin is the marketing director for the family-owned Polyface Farm, which turns out beef, pork, pastured poultry and eggs, forage-based rabbits and forestry products.
After Salatin's 9 a.m. presentation, workshops are on tap from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., many of them consumer-oriented, Strickland said.
Some of the topics include:
• "Facebook4Farmers" — "I see a lot of our farmers are getting a whole lot more business savvy with all this social media," Strickland said. "Even if they don't have a website, they're going to have a Facebook page."
• "Buyers Club Markets" — "Compare farmers to investors in a company," Strickland explained. In a buyers club, farmers come together, each with his or her own product, and sell to club members.
• "Poultry Egg Production" — Hernando County officials are considering an ordinance that would allow backyard poultry flocks in some residential neighborhoods. Already, Strickland is outlining a series of classes on small poultry production, with topics ranging from "what is a chicken" to "what to feed."
• "Farmscaping" — The subject concerns pollination to increase blossom set of fruits and vegetables, mainly by encouraging native bees. "Sometimes it's as little as making a bare sunny spot and having a hive on it," Strickland said.
• "Pomegranates" — Not only will they grow in Central Florida, Strickland explained why people might want to plant some trees: "If you've ever gone in a grocery store and seen pomegranates for $3, you'll know."
• "Small Ruminant Health" — Goats will be the focus since many people are able to raise the meat and dairy animals on small plots.
• "Mushrooms in a Bag" — No cave needed. "They can grow in a bag," Strickland said. In this hands-on workshop, participants will leave with their own bag and mushroom spawn.
The public is welcome to attend the conference.
"Everybody who comes to this conference is not going to be a farmer," Strickland said, "although an abundance of them will be."
The aim of AGRItunity "is to really get people thinking about new things, put the idea in people's heads, some of the newer ideas."
"You don't spoon-feed to everyone," he said. "We try to tell people how we think it should be done, to give them a little jump start."
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]