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Hernando's local harvest is bountiful

Broccoli is a winter crop in Florida, and the plants at the Auro Community Garden south of Brooksville were overgrown and leafy when I visited last week. Still, manager William Ford was able to slice off a few florets and, because his operation uses no pesticides, offer them right up as samples.

After years of unenthusiastically munching crudites doused in ranch dressing, my first bite was a revelation: Broccoli can actually have taste — fresh and like a darker, richer cabbage, which I mean in a good way.

So it is when vegetables don't travel thousands of miles in airplanes or semitrailers, when fruits and tomatoes aren't picked hard and green to accommodate shipping schedules, but ripe and juicy to appeal to the people who put them on the table.

They taste better and, as any dietitian will tell you, vibrant flavor and color usually mean more nutrients.

Maybe you're tired of being preached to about buying local produce and, yes, it can be carried too far. Personally, I have no intention of giving up bananas or creamy California avocados.

But who can argue that we shouldn't be raising more fruits and vegetables in Hernando County? And not just for our health, environment and added sensory joy in our lives — not insignificant benefits, mind you — but for the local economy.

I've written this before and will again, but developing this industry, making use of our land rather than letting it lie fallow for the next crop of subdivisions, is one of my big hopes for the county.

Because it's that time of year again — we're publishing our annual Hernando Business section today — I thought I'd check to see how we're progressing on the ag front.

It's going pretty well. Nothing revolutionary, mind you. There are the expected setbacks that come when people find out the one basic fact that drove so many previous generations off the farm: Agriculture is hard work and often not very profitable.

As some farmers expand and diversify, others disappear or cut back. David Frazier, whose family pretty much founded the buy-local movement in Hernando, grew a variety of crops, including blueberries and strawberries, a decade ago. Now, he concentrates on his legendary sweet corn crop. (It will be ready in mid May, by the way.)

But if you scan the county, you'll no doubt find more farmers growing a wider variety of crops available at an increasing number of outlets.

Between 2002 and 2007, the most recent figures available, the number of farmers in Hernando grew 24 percent, from 617 to 768, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This survey also found that the amount of land up for organic certification, 504 acres, dwarfs that of most other nearby counties.

Though, four years later, there's no word on how much of this land has now been certified, even most nonorganic local growers use far fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides than large industrial ag operations.

They include stalwarts such as Joann Beasley, who has sold squash, peppers, onions and other crops from a stand on her farm east of Brooksville for more than a decade and who, along with Lark Napier of Masaryktown, is a regular at the Saturday farmers market in downtown Brooksville.

There are farmers who came into the business because of the downturn in housing and related industries. Bob Snow, for example, is a member of an old Brooksville family who worked for years at the former MI Nursery on Powell Road, growing plants, supervising landscaping crews and selling the product all over Florida. He's now growing salad greens and tomato plants on his land north of Brooksville.

Tonya Penick and Gina Cavaliero owned a stucco and drywall business until a few years ago, when they started Green Acre Organics, which uses aquaponics, a word and technique formed by combining aquaculture and hydroponics. The effluent-rich water from tilapia tanks seeps into plant beds, which help purify it enough to return to the fish tanks.

That's something else you see more of: innovative growing methods. Auro has produced as many 5,500 plants on a plot about 100 feet square using the Verti-Gro system — stacked pots fed by drip irrigation, the water fortified with minerals mined from the ground rather than synthesized from petroleum.

After a short layoff, another community garden, Farming for Families, is planting again this spring the old-fashioned way — in rows, in the ground — said Matt Lowman, who helped found the organization in 2008. "This is a group of guys who just finds land, grows stuff and gives it away," he said.

Its beneficiaries — and Auro's — might include church pantries and charities such as Love Your Neighbor and Jericho Road Ministries, which operates a homeless shelter.

But we're talking business, so the stores open to selling local produce include Murphy's Market in Spring Hill, and Brooksville and Spring Hill Natural Foods (which are, in the interest of full disclosure, co-owned by my wife).

Green Acre also sells to Wright's Nutrients in New Port Richey and Skoors Produce Market in Inverness and is planning to start a community-supported agriculture group — a regular circle of customers who pay a fixed price in return for regular deliveries of produce in season. Maybe you've noticed, as I have, the increasing number of produce stands around Brooksville, several of which sell locally grown fruits and vegetables.

And let's not forget the blueberry industry, which has emerged from nothing 15 years ago after the creation of new, heat-tolerant hybrids. There are now several large, established growers who have contracts with national distributors.

So like citrus and watermelon in the old days, some Hernando crops are shipped across the country. Does that hurt my feelings? Not at all. Not as long as the money comes back here. As I said before, this buy-local thing can be carried too far.

Hernando's local harvest is bountiful 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 11:48am]
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