By BONNIE WELLS, DPM
Commercial Agriculture Agent UF/IFAS
When you think Hastings, you probably think potatoes and cabbage, as this area produces more than 17,000 acres of these commodities combined.
Thatâ€™s more than any other county, which makes the Hastings area the potato and cabbage capital of Florida. In St. Johns County, among other commodities, we grow potatoes and cabbage, and we grow them well. And there is always fresh produce to spare, especially from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Hastings Extension Centerâ€™s Cowpen Branch research farm.
The Cowpen Branch facility consists of approximately 50 acres of land located off Cowpen Branch Road near Hastings. This crop production research facility has been operated by UF/IFAS since the 1950s and has a long track record of excellent potato production. Instead of discarding any spare produce at the end of the season, beginning this past year, UF/IFAS Extension decided to continue the trend of many local farmers and donate their leftover fresh produce to non-profit organizations such as Farm Share, Society of St. Andrew and Bread of Life. These organizations then distribute the surplus produce to families, shelters, soup kitchens and other food pantries, making nutritious foods available free of charge to the Florida families that need them the most.
This year more than 168,000 pounds of surplus potatoes alone were donated to Farm Share from the UF/IFAS Cowpen Branch Facility that were then trucked to participating community groups throughout Florida.
Farm Share is a 25-year-old hunger relief organization that last year distributed more than 26 million pounds of produce to Florida families. Distribution by Farm Share is no cost to those in need and their community partners, with main locations in Homestead, Quincy, Pompano, and their newest location in Jacksonville. Locally, most distribution is to Hastings, St. Augustine, Putnam and Flagler. Distributions are posted on their website weekly (farmshare.org).
Brian Phelan, Director of Food Procurement, with Farm Share says this year alone, about 1 million pounds of produce has been donated from St. Johns Countyâ€™s agricultural producers. â€œThe positive impact that these donations have made cannot be overstated, as well as the support we have received particularly from Blue Sky Farms,â€ said Phelan. Blue Sky Farms donated more than 2 million pounds of produce over the last two years, including potatoes, squash, rutabagas, collards, radishes, beet and onions. Other local farms donating produce include Middleton Farms, Sykes and Cooper, L & M, and more.
â€œThe St. Johns farming community has been a legitimate true blessing. Over 250,000 households were able to have much needed produce from St. Johns County due to the generosity of the growers there,â€ Phelan said. â€œThis nation wouldnâ€™t be what it is without the growers, plain and simple.â€
Farm Shareâ€™s connection with the UF/IFAS Cowpen Branch Station resulted from Commissioner Jeb Smith, also President of Putnam/St. Johns Farm Bureau, who came out to one of the distributions and recommended UF/IFAS get in touch with Brian.
â€œIFAS and the work there was so impressive,â€ Phalen said. â€œTo strive to grow produce that will better meet the needs of an ever-growing and demanding society is incredible. I am hopeful to be able to continue and expand the relationship with UF/IFAS and to help more people. IFAS is such an important part of everyday life for all the advancements, yet so few know about it.â€