Growing trend: Polk County, US returning to the small-farm lifestyle
The seeds of a new agriculture have taken root and are growing.
The new agriculture is being built on a small scale and pointedly rejects the industrial, single-crop production model practiced on most commercial farms.
“People are getting disconnected from their food. There’s a huge interest in wanting to know where your food comes from,” said Benny Glass, 35, of GlassRoots Farm and Haberdashery, an organic grower on four acres in North Lakeland. “I believe it’s been a long time coming. We’ve gotten so far removed from the process of growing food.”
Will Crum agreed. He’s the owner of Crum Brothers Family Farm in South Lakeland, an organic fruit and vegetable grower on six acres.
“It’s important to know your farmer personally,” Crum, 34, said. “I support the community. If they buy stuff from me, I can give back to the community.”
The recently released 2017 Census of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would seem to support Glass. It shows the number of small farms of 10 acres or less in Polk County, Florida and the United States has grown since the last census of 2012.
In Polk, the number of small farms has grown 2% over that span to 446 operations, or 21% of the county’s 2,080 commercial farm operations in 2017. The USDA defines a commercial farm as an operation with at least $1,000 in annual revenue.
The rise in Florida has been more dramatic, up 20% over the five years to 14,072 small farms, or 29.6% of all commercial operations. Nationally, the number of farms of less than 10 acres jumped 22% to 273,325 operations, or 13.4% of more than 2 million U.S. farms.
In Polk, the number of commercial farms between 500 to 999 acres grew 8 percent to 68 operations. Local farms of 1,000 or more acres declined by 12 operations, or 11 percent, to 99 farms, and all other categories also showed declines.
In Florida, farms of 500 to 999 acres grew 2% to 1,286 farms, but even larger farms grew at a faster pace — 11.6% to 738 farms of 1,000 to 1,999 acres, and 4% to 803 farms of 2,000 or more acres.
In the U.S., farms of 2,000 or more acres grew by 3.6% to 85,127 farms while all other categories declined, including a 4% drop to 87,666 farms of 1,000 to 1,999 acres and a 6.5% fall to 133,321 farms between 500 and 999 acres.
The census numbers support the long-term trend in agriculture of large farms buying up smaller farms to capture economies of scale, said Alan Hodges, an economist and extension scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Hodges is familiar with Polk agriculture as the leader of several studies in the past two decades measuring its impact on the local economy.
“That reflects consolidation in the industry. Fewer and fewer farms are getting bigger and bigger,” said Hodges of the trends among large farm operations.
The rise in small farm operations does reflect a return to the family farm, particularly among younger people who are more environmentally conscious and, like Glass, want to know the people who produce the food they eat, he said.
“You’re seeing this consumer trend of greater awareness of where food comes from,” Hodges said.
Of necessity, the small operators adopt organic or more environmentally friendly growing practices because they tend to live on the property, he added.
“If you’re going to make a lifestyle of it, the last thing you want to do is to expose yourselves to toxic agricultural chemicals. That’s a non-starter,” said Hodges, who himself has a small cattle and pecan farm at his Gainesville residence.
Mary Beth Henry agreed. She’s the extension agent for small farms at UF’s Cooperative Extension Service in Bartow and the co-leader of the university’s Small Farms and Alternative Enterprises Program.
Most people who seek her help starting a small farm want to pursue a USDA organic growing certification, Henry said.
Many abandon the pursuit once they learn how rigorous the certification program is, she added, but they still commit to using organic and environmentally friendly practices.
GlassRoots is not USDA certified organic yet, Glass said, but it uses only accepted organic techniques, such as no agricultural chemicals or genetically engineered plants.
Crum got USDA organic certification in 2014 but did not renew it, he said. Crum Brothers continues to use organic growing methods exclusively.
“Generally people are feeling unsure about our food system. They want to know how it’s grown, how it’s distributed, how it’s disposed of,” said Henry, referring to rising concerns about food waste. “They’re concerned about the social impact of the food system.”
Most small farmers do not derive their primary income from agriculture, Henry and Hodges agreed. Agriculture is a side business and lifestyle choice.
That describes Nelson Kirkland, 56, a co-owner with other family members of Kirkland Farms, a 15-acre blueberry farm in South Lakeland. He has run Central Florida Media Group in Winter Haven, which publishes three agricultural periodicals, since 2010 after a 23-year career at The Ledger.
Kirkland grew up on the Lakeland property, where his parents had a small cattle operation, and he inherited the land in 2008, he said. His family has owned the property for 138 years.
He planted blueberries in 2009 to produce income that would keep the property in the family, Kirkland said, and he also wanted to return to the agriculture lifestyle he grew up on.
“This property has been farmed in some way for about 138 years,” he said. “The reason for continuing to run a farm operation is to continue the Kirkland Farms tradition.”
Although not his primary income, he still derives a great deal of satisfaction from working on the farm, Kirkland said.
“I’ve got the scratches and bruises to show for it,” he added.
Satisfaction is what keeps Alecia Folsom, 46, in the farm business. She runs Red Roof Farm, a bee and meat goat operation, on 9.6 acres in North Lakeland with her parents, James and Jeannie Crauswell.
“At the end of the day, when I lay down in bed and I’m completely exhausted, I feel good about my day,” Folsom said.
Folsom couldn’t say that about her previous career with a national pharmacy chain, she added.
“It didn’t fill my soul. It didn’t make me happy,” Folsom said.
She supplements her farm income with a part-time job as a dog caretaker, she said, and her parents have retirement income.
She hopes eventually to expand the operation and become a full-time farmer, Folsom said.
“There’s nothing else I’d rather do,” she said.
Glass also had a part-time job while establishing his farm, he said, but he gave that up to devote full time to growing a variety of seasonal crops, including lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, okra, beans, nectarines, peaches and avocados. He is also starting a native plant nursery.
Glass projects the farm will produce more than $80,000 in revenue this year, he said.
Crum, a seventh generation Polk farmer, said he derives all his income from the farm but acknowledges that forces him to live frugally. Crum Brothers grows 60 different fruits and vegetables year round, generating a consistent income stream.
The latest agriculture census had some other interesting Polk findings that reflect on the growth of slightly larger farm operations up to 100 acres, Hodges said.
The census showed Polk farms sold $16.5 million worth of commodities to food retailers, restaurants and other direct-to-consumer purveyors, he said. Those direct-to-consumer transactions probably involve farms of roughly 50 to 100 acres, the size needed to become a consistent year-round supplier to a local food-service purveyor, Hodges said. Larger farms typically sell to food manufacturers and distributors.
“That’s a substantial number,” he said.
One of those farms is Crum Brothers.
Crum said he started providing a Tampa restaurant with organic produce five years ago, and he currently provides 20 restaurants, mostly in Tampa.
That income is one of the chief reasons he can live solely off farming operations, he added.
Like Crum Brothers, a lot of those direct-to-consumer sales probably involve organic food, Hodges said. The 2017 census was the first time USDA measured in that category, so there are no historical comparisons.
Another Polk sector doing well is horticulture sales, up 13% over five years to $48.6 million, he noted. That includes ornamental plants, sod and other landscape materials.
The increase probably reflects the growth of Polk’s housing and commercial construction sectors, Hodges said.
“New homes need to be landscaped,” he said. “That’s part of the building code.”