In 2007, a team of UF/IFAS Small Farms Extension Agents in Southwest Florida began working together to design a regional network for farmers. Now called the Southwest Florida Small Farmers Network (SWFSFN), it includes owners and operators of small- to mid-sized farms in Hillsborough and Collier Counties. In this article, we’ll describe how it got started, how it works, and what benefits the SWFSFN has brought to farmers in the region.
When graduate student Robert Kluson, now a UF/IFAS Extension Agent in Sarasota County, learned about farmer groups in the Mid-west, he was inspired. “Those farmers taught each other, carried out participatory on-farm research and promoted more self-reliance; and once I was working for UF/IFAS, I wanted to bring this to the region,” said Robert.
Nine years ago, local food was just coming on the scene, and there was a lot of interest from buyers who wanted to develop relationships with local farmers. The turning point came when several local distributors asked for Robert’s help to locate farmers. Not wanting to miss any opportunities to build relationships among farmers and buyers, Robert then pitched the idea of starting a farmer network to Roy Beckford from UF/IFAS Extension in Lee County; and that’s how it all got started. “We invited farmers who had attended previous UF/IFAS SFAE events and pitched this idea to them and they fully supported this effort,” Robert said.
How It Works
The network is currently facilitated by UF/IFAS Extension Agents of Sarasota, Lee, Collier and Polk counties. The goal is to meet small farmer-identified priorities, issues, and needs with farmer-to-farmer contact and educational resources. The format of the meetings includes a farm visit that provides a farmer-narrated tour of their farm operation in conjunction with presentations by Extension agents on topics that were preselected by a majority vote of the farmers and other members at the previous meeting. These meetings also include a growers’ discussion of relevant issues, a pot-luck lunch and a seed swap. Membership is open to everyone at no cost. If you desire to eat, you are encouraged to bring something to share. Any costs associated with distribution of educational materials or demonstrations are typically paid for by IFAS Extension.
Within the first years of operation, the network met every other month at farms across the region. The SWFSFN now meets at least twice a year, and meeting attendance ranges from 25 to 75 farmers. The agents organize these events at small farms with integrated production systems from vegetables to aquaponics to pastured livestock.
Benefits of the Network
The network follows the farmer-to-farmer model, said Robert. “Farmers decide on topics to present or explore, issues to talk about and more. Agents present in only one hour of the three- to four-hour program. We are really only facilitators.” The conversations among farmers is always open, farmers are encouraged to express their views and concerns. For example, one group discussed the lack of regulatory support for sales of eggs and homemade goods at farmers’ markets. That conversation inspired others to take up the cause, and eventually led to the passage of the Limited Poultry and Egg Farm Operations and Cottage Foods state laws in (2011 & 2012).
The network reduced transportation costs of organic seed potatoes from the UF/IFAS Potato Program for an on-farm research project. They have also explored collective alternative enterprises, such as biofuels and biochar production among other things. Robert thinks that these kinds of networks are needed throughout the state. “It’s a way to let farmers know they are not alone, they can meet like-minded individuals, build a network of resources and contacts and learn from each other. I hope that this type of networks becomes a standard part of the collaboration activities within IFAS County Extension agents”, Robert said.
In 2009, the SWFSFN network was recognized as the National Winner (Southern Rfor its effectiveness at building community among farmers and their service providers by the National Association of County Agricultural Agents who awarded the founding agents with the a Search for Excellence Award in the Sustainable Agriculture Program category. The model is still relevant today, and opportunities for collaborative learning are needed more than ever.
Want to Participate?
The next network meeting is in the works.
Date: Mid to late August, 2016. (date TBD)
Location: UF/IFAS Gulf coast REC, Balm, FL
Program: Presentations and tour of the Research Center lead by Dr. Shinsuke Agehara, Small Fruits & Vegetables Program
Contact the following UF/IFAS Extension Agents in the region:
- Robert Kluson – Sarasota County Extension – firstname.lastname@example.org 941-232-3090
- Roy Beckford – Lee County Extension – email@example.com 239-533-7512
- Vanessa Bielema – Collier County Extension – firstname.lastname@example.org 239-252-4800
- Mary Beth Henry – Polk County Extension – email@example.com 863-519-1049