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Florida Non-profit Supports Dying Breed of Farmers along the Panhandle

July 26, 2012 |

In recent years, Florida has seen a rapidly growing desire for fresh, local fruits and vegetables. Consumers are looking for a variety of specialty crops, yet small farms along the Gulf Coast have had a difficult time meeting the increasing demand.

So, Panhandle Fresh Marketing Association (PFMA) decided to step in to help farmers thrive and contribute to a growing produce market. The not-for-profit was created in November of 2007 as a 501c4 organization, with the help of a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) grant, to help Gulf Coast farmers increase profitability and sustainability in the area, as well expand their current markets.

Its main objective is to increase Florida’s supply of specialty crops, as many farmers focus on cotton, peanuts and soybeans. Part of PFMA’s mission is to help farmers branch out to grow a wider variety of food.

Kayla Gude, marketing coordinator for PFMA, says that through their efforts, the not-for-profit has been able to achieve meaningful results for its farmers, who are located in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton. Not only does the group target the Panhandle area, but it extends into southern Alabama counties including Baldwin and Mobile. Throughout these areas, PFMA also aims to expand marketing options that help farmers meet the demand for local produce, as well as increase the community’s awareness about local food.

Farmers can also look to PFMA for liability insurance policies, marketing materials, vendor identification numbers, distribution assistance, bookkeeping and accounting assistance and food safety training and certifications.

Currently, the group attracts members mainly through word of mouth. “We do have an application process though, and as marketing coordinator, I meet with the farmers,” Gude explains. “I have to vouch for their products and make sure the farmers grow a quality consistent product that we put our brand on.”

PFMA provides marketing support and has created a distribution center that helps small farmers get their food into retail stores. “Right now, we work with retail outlets such as Walmart,” says Gude. “We’re starting to put our produce in stores from Chipley to Pensacola. We’ve gotten these two districts and they’ve really embraced the local movement. We’re hoping to get other retailers on board.”

PFMA receives a percentage of the produce sales, and once all of its expenses are paid, the leftover profits are returned to the University of Florida’s West Florida Research and Education Center. “We work very closely with them,” says Gude. “The professors there are doing all sorts of specialty crop trials, and our sales go directly back to them to support their research.”

Sustainability is also part of PFMA’s equation. Making sure workers receive good wages and ensuring that farmers are not overproducing or overusing fertilizers and pesticides are ways in which the organization ensures sustainability. A few of their member farms are even pesticide-free, and Gude expects some of them to be certified organic over the next few years.

Gude has found that the biggest challenge for PFMA is food safety. “It’s ever-changing. The second I get my target on it, it’s already moved,” says Gude. “Because we received funding through a FDACS grant, food safety is a huge hurdle. It’s coming from the retailers, and they have strict requirements for the farmers. So, we work with the local county extension agents, get farmers ready for audit, set up an actual audit for them, and then tag along with the auditor.”

As for goals in the future, “we actually have a lot,” laughs Gude. First, PFMA plans to open a distribution center where the group can really control the quality of the product that they are receiving. “Right now, most of our farmers grow the same thing, but we want to be able to make it consistent,” Gude explains. “Not all of our farmers are row croppers. Some of them are specifically specialty crop farmers growing produce for us. We want to make sure that the quality is consistent.”

In addition to reaching retail stores such as Walmart, PFMA strives to work with institutions such as the school systems and correctional facilities. Gude even hopes to link up with the Department of Defense.

PFMA also wants to bring more farmers on board to help them with their profitability and sustainability. Most of the farms it currently works with bring in between $30,000-60,000 a year, and it hopes to reach out to smaller farms that pull in less than $30,000 a year, explains Gude. “We want to be able to help these smaller farms out, because small farms are dying.”

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