Odds are you're already familiar with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Fresh From Florida program, which allows growers, processors, distributors and more to slap a sunny, bright logo on their products. The goal is to help the Sunshine State agriculture industry set itself apart from the national and international competition, and to give consumers a way to quickly distinguish what's been grown in-state and what hasn't.
All good stuff. But what about something for those of us who'd like a bit more specificity? Who hasn't wondered, when picking up an item at a farmers' market or ordering a dish at a local-sourcing restaurant, if you're getting the real deal?
That's where a new labeling initiative, Sarasota Grown, comes in. The program, set to launch in full by mid- to late-February, is an initiative of the University of Florida's Sarasota County Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension office.
Administrative Manager Aubrey Phillips says the idea came from research that showed that consumers' uncertainty about whether a product was actually grown locally was a "significant limiting factor" when they choose their produce. Those findings echoed conversations that members of the Sarasota Agricultural Council and the Sarasota Soil and Water Conservation District had been having about the need to somehow distinguish local products.
For a model, Phillips says her office looked to the Appalachian Grown certification. Unlike Sarasota's much more specific regional focus, the Appalachian program covers a broad area that includes western North Carolina and portions of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. But the model still applies. Phillips says Marion County has adopted a similar program, and Miami-Dade County offers a Redland Raised label for products from Redland, an agricultural zone near Miami.
So how's it work? The program is voluntary and self-regulating, at least for now, and anyone from farmers to restauranteurs can sign up to use the logo. But it's not a free-for-all. Producers must sign a licensing agreement with UF, IFAS and Sarasota County. A draft version of that agreement, provided by Phillips, includes a number of stipulations. Meat marketed as Sarasota Grown, for example, must come from animals who have spent 75 percent of their life, after weaning, on a Sarasota farm, and 75 percent of any processed farm good (excepting salt, sugar, oil, water and wheat) must actually come from a Sarasota farm. For a restaurant to use the logo to promote a dish, any product included in the name of the dish must come from Sarasota.
While the program will launch using the honor system, the Extension office reserves the right to revoke a producer's license if questions about their use of the logo arise. That trust-but-verify approach is part of what is allowing the program to get off the ground. Phillips says her office could become more proactive about verifying proper usage if the label is successful. Which it should be. As the locavore trend grows, it's vital to keep growers and producers honest. For Sarasota County, Sarasota Grown is a big first step.
This is the 41st entry in Eat Near, a regular column dedicated to all the lovely food that folks on the Suncoast grow, raise, kill or craft. If you have an idea for someone/thing to feature, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter: @LeveyBaker.