Farming ranks No. 1 with U.S. consumers

HM Cattle Company owner Grant Handley adds salt to the trough for his herd at a farm in Sumter County. Americans’ appreciation for farming has increased during the pandemic.

Feeding Florida is an opportunity Jessica Gentry cherishes most about farming. “I couldn’t be more humble,” said Gentry, owner of Bountiful Farms in Okahumpka. “I’m always grateful for our customers and that I can feed them, no matter what’s going on.” Locally and nationwide, consumers also are grateful. Americans’ views of farming have shifted more positive for their roles in providing essential goods and services during the COVID-19 pandemic. In The Villages, farming’s vital role in feeding the community is shown through the presence of local farmers and their goods at the Brownwood Farmers Market and The Villages Grown, where residents can buy produce grown as locally as possible. Nationwide, the appreciation for communities’ local farmers is increasing: A recent poll from Gallup shows farming and agriculture ranks No. 1 among America’s business and industry sectors with a 69% positive rating, up 11 percentage points from the year prior.

It’s the first time agriculture led this survey since Gallup began tracking Americans’ views of industry sectors in 2000.

Placing a face to a crop

The community’s appreciation for agriculture comes in part from connecting the products they buy to the faces of people who created them.

At the Brownwood Farmers Market, Villagers and area residents can purchase fruit, vegetables, herbs, honey and other agricultural products directly from the farms. Customers can ask questions about the products directly of the farmers.

Grant and Rebecca Handley, co-owners of HM Cattle Co. in Webster, recently began selling meat from their locally raised and harvested cattle at the market. They oversee about 400 heads of cattle on lands in Sumter, Lake and Polk counties.

Customers at the farmers market enjoy “everything we have,” Grant said. Steaks, roasts and ground beef are popular, and they also offer specialty items like bone-in short ribs and tri-tips that he said are not as easy to find in the supermarket.

“It’s been very good,” he said about the market during a break from customer interactions. “We know the more we’re here, the more the word will spread.”

Gentry, of Bountiful Farms, doesn’t limit her outreach to her farmers market presence.

Her farm offers tours where people can walk through the grounds as farmers talk about what they grow and how they grow it.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t realize what an okra plant or a broccoli plant looks like,” Gentry said.

Supplying a community

The tri-county’s small farms are supplemented by The Villages Grown, The Villages’ farm-to-table initiative. It involves a hyperlocal system designed with the freshest, most nutritious and most locally sourced food possible.

The Villages Grown remains committed to filling gaps in the supply chain during the pandemic with crops grown on its 45-acre farm at the southwest corner of Morse Boulevard and State Road 44, as well as products from local farm and local artisan partners, said Jennifer Waxman, The Villages Grown’s executive director.

Serving large food-service customers, like restaurants, keeps the local food system intact, she said. This allows for a more far reaching impact.

“This makes real change,” she said. “And keeping our supply local helps keep our dollars local.”

Appreciation for the work The Villages Grown’s farmers do is apparent among its customers, whether they’re large suppliers or people in The Villages, Waxman said.

Appreciation by doing

When food supplies were strained early in the year from panic-buying, people turned to producing their own food.

That opened more people up to how challenging farming can be, leading them to be more appreciative of the work farmers do in feeding the country, said Laura Bennett, a multicounty livestock agent with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) extension, whose jurisdiction includes Sumter County.

“When we have to stop and think of a shortage of some kind, it makes us thankful for what we have,” she said. “We take it for granted when everything is plentiful, and (the pandemic has) made us stop and think about it.”

Home produce gardening gained significant interest since the start of the pandemic. Just under 20% of all U.S. adults, including 23% of baby boomers, kept a home produce garden this year, according to the data and analytics group YouGov.

UF/IFAS reported not only an increase in questions about home produce gardening, but also questions from people looking to raise animals for meat.

“When you try to do it yourself and see how hard it is,” Bennett said, “then you really have an appreciation for the farmers and ranchers, because it’s really difficult.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.