By BRUCE COLLIER
Two meetings were recently held in Walton County by ACT (Agriculture and Communities Together) Walton, a community group formed to “link farmers, businesses and citizens with the purpose of promoting local food, local products and local business.” The meetings were Jan. 12 and 14 in south and north Walton County. Facilitating the south Walton County meeting was Kendra Zamojski, family and consumer sciences community development agent for Walton County Extension’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Zamojski said that the intent of the meeting was to assess community interest. She expressed surprise and pleasure at the citizen turnout, which nearly filled the meeting room at the Coastal Branch Library.
Zamojski began the meeting with a power-point demonstration, casting ACT as a “kind of umbrella,” operating as a non-profit. The goals of the organization would be coordination, networking, marketing, and education, as well as seeking various grants that are “out there.” She went on to cite the health, economic, environmental and community benefits of buying locally, noting that $45 of every $100 spent locally stays local, and that, on average, produce must travel 1,500 miles to reach area groceries.
Employing a trickle-down chart, Zamojski placed producers, consumers and businesses at the top, with farmers, marketers, organic farmers and agritourism below. She also spoke of the “new economy,” characterizing it as knowledge-dependent, global, entrepreneurial, and driven by innovation.
At this point the meeting broke into three small groups, divided roughly into general areas of interest – local shopping, local agriculture, and local businesses. Among the people in the various groups were graduate agricultural students working on a local organic farm, gardeners wanting to expand, organizers of an organic farmer’s market, restaurant owners, a personal chef, South Walton Community Council members, and members of the Chamber of Commerce. Also attending were citizens interested in becoming “local-vores,” a recently-coined term meaning people who eat locally-farmed or harvested produce, meat, and dairy.
One restaurant owner commented that some, but not all, restaurants were committed to buying local, asking “Where do I buy local?” The question was reiterated in another group by two new residents in the area, who had been used to buying locally in their former homes. Another citizen said that farmers and producers are willing to travel to farmers’ markets, but won’t return if interest is minimal. It was suggested that an effort be made to centralize such markets, giving buyers a one-stop place to buy local food. A chef added that farmers need to know what local consumers want.
In another group, community gardens were the topic. Several people spoke of using donated or city-owned designated land, with amateur farmers tending their respective plots. A collateral benefit of this would be its educational value, especially to young people.
The question of education was raised as part of a perceived problem of public knowledge. Two major concerns were lack of knowledge of sources, and the problem of traveling to find produce. “I’m passionate about [quality local produce] but I have time constraints,” said one attendee. Another concern was state and federal regulation of produce. One citizen suggested lobbying to amend the federal Farm Bill.
The facilitators brought some written materials supplementing the subject, including information on “How to Start a Local Buying Campaign,” a list of Web sites on local foods, organized by subject and region, and flyers from local marketing associations. The attendees agreed to hold additional meetings and to continue networking. Commenting on the attendance and level of interest, one person observed, “We have critical mass.”
For more information on ACT Walton, contact the University of Florida/Walton County Extension at (850) 892-8172. For information on community farmers markets and seasonal availability of Florida produce, go online to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, at www.fl-ag.com.