SAINT AUGUSTINE – Danny Johns, a fourth-generation potato farmer who owns Blue Sky Farms and grows more than 20 varieties of spring potatoes in St. Johns County, is hoping to add some pizzazz to the holiday staple. His unique, purple sweet potato variety is high in anthocyanin antioxidants and a bright contrast to the typical side of white spuds. And if you just served them over Thanksgiving, the new variety and color may be a very welcome change for your next family holiday meal.
The farming business in St. Johns, Putnam and Flagler counties, known as the Tri-County Agricultural Area, is humming this time of year with many local farms harvesting alternative vegetables along with traditional staples like potatoes, greens and squash which contribute to a countywide agriculture economic impact of more than $1 billion per year based on a 2015 University of Florida report considering the entire food and agriculture sector, which includes food and forestry product manufacturing, distribution, mining and nature-based recreation.
“The Center for Disease Control and Prevention listed its powerhouse fruits and vegetables, and of the 40 listed we can grow almost all of them locally,” said David Dinkins, multi-county community development/food systems extension agent from the University of Florida. Extension. “We have the climate, skill set and experience right here, so the opportunity for growth in the agriculture business is significant.”
Many of those include Asian and hybrid vegetables and the demand for these nourishing vegetables has steadily increased over the past ten years meaning local farms are growing crops like bok choy, napa cabbage and daikon radish, while taking advantage of the productive farmland soil and longer growing season to export to Northern markets.
St. Johns County Commissioner and fifth-generation farmer Jeb Smith is proud of the agriculture growth he has witnessed firsthand with young farmers coming to the area with specialty farming interests and degrees in niche management studies from colleges and universities. The new breed of entrepreneurial farmers often grow the exotic, harder to harvest crops in small farm plots and incorporate them into larger farms for the specializations and relationships.
“They are able to sell locally-harvested produce through direct sales and marketing to restaurants, wholesale suppliers and farmers’ markets,” said Smith. “I encourage the young entrepreneurs, including my 21-year-old son who is coming into the family business, to network with other local growers through organizations like the St. Johns County Chamber to build relationships with other practicing professionals in the ag niche field and stay up-to-date on policies that may impact business.”
Terms like “slow food” and “farm to table” are catching on as “a delicious solution to climate change.” Food sold locally is better for the environment, because there is little to no transportation needed, which means fewer trucks and trains required to get the food to store shelves.
St. Johns County is proud of its Agriculture Tourism Corridor that promotes the industry with farm tour events that educate the public about the county’s unique positioning with multi-generation family farms and exotic farms all benefitting from the productive soils here. The annual Tour de Farm in November included 50 local farms and was put on by Slow Food First Coast, a nonprofit working to save disappearing food products and to help people understand the importance of caring where food comes from and how it’s made.
“I’m proud of businesses like County Line Produce on SR 207 in Hastings where the owners are local farmers and take their produce to the public in a traditional farm stand, which is unique and may not exist much longer due to the convenience of retailers,” said Scott Graddy, owner of Ag-Tastic, which provides drone and satellite surveillance systems for the farming community, among other services. “Unfortunately, some of the exotic produce grown at St. Johns County farms are at risk due to their unusual nature and their high cost to the farmers.”
The food and agriculture sector, which includes industry support business such as Ag-Tastic, account for an estimated 19,000 jobs in St. Johns County according to a 2015 University of Florida report. With agricultural designations ranging from crop land to aquaculture to nurseries and livestock, there are 166,173 acres deemed agricultural with an assessed value of $52,597,000, according to the St. Johns County Property Appraiser.
“It’s a holistic business that is stabilizing to the economy as evidenced by the tourism decline we saw post 9/11 as well as the housing crash,” said Dinkins. “There’s also an untold story with sustainability. Farms provide ecosystem services and habitat for wildlife. In the last five years, farms in the tri-county area of Putnam, St. Johns and Flagler have collectively saved one billion gallons of water annually due to new irrigation systems.”
St. Johns County is being recognized as a great place to live with noteworthy accolades including CNN Money Magazine ranking it as number five of Top 25 Counties for Best Places to Live. This rapid migration of new residents has translated to 54 percent growth in the last 10 years. More residents mean a larger, closer buying public for local farmers.
Taxes generated by the agriculture business help provide operating income to the county, which translates to services and infrastructure to support the public health and safety of the county. It’s known that wages earned by residents are often spent locally to support businesses and other organizations, which helps multiply the benefit of spending within a shared community.
“Currently, less than 10 percent of American’s income is being spent on food. Farming is too important to us all to forget, and we must be strong advocates in support of farmers and producing our own agriculture industry,” said Bryan Jones, president of the Putnam/St. Johns Farm Bureau and a third-generation farmer at Riverdale Potato Farm in St. Augustine.
He shares fellow community leader and farmer Jeb Smith’s excitement about young farmers coming into the area. Jones believes younger farmers are more apt to share knowledge and help each other at their farming, production and income levels.
“The economic development and advocacy work we do at the Chamber from both state and local levels benefit all sectors, but our agriculture businesses have some unique considerations such as water access, conservation and logistics,” said Bob Porter, St. Johns County Chamber director of public policy. “The chamber works closely with the St. Johns County Economic Development Department while always keeping the robust opportunities within our current agricultural landscape in mind.”
“I view the next step in our county’s economic development and chamber initiatives in regards to agri-business is the citing of appropriate industrial processing facilities for fruits and vegetables we grow locally within St. Johns County and the First Coast,” stated Mary O’Brien, chairman of the St. Johns County Chamber. “We grow our produce locally, but ship it off to far away facilities for retail processing. No full-service processing facility resides within the county for any of the produce we grow. Together, we should identify, zone and market the proper locations to allow for full circle agri-business opportunities. This will help to balance our local tax base and shift a portion of tax reliance from residential properties to a broader community mix of residential, commercial and industrial properties.”
From a consumer standpoint, winter vegetables are plentiful now including locally-grown crops like green beans, brussels sprouts and an assortment of sweet, exotic potatoes. As families and friends gather around the holiday table, the season’s vegetables are not only a kinder choice for optimum health, but also for the health of the First Coast economy.
“It’s important that First Coast residents eat and request local when they can,” said Dinkins. “That may be stopping by a neighborhood farmers’ market, asking your grocery store’s manager to source local for a particular item, or sign up for a farm bag delivery service.” In the 12thmonth of the year that often proves hardest to be healthy, local farmers are doing their best to share many delicious and wholesome holiday table alternatives.