Volunteer Group reaps a Spiritual Harvest
What is the Hernando County Growers Association?
It’s not a what as much as it’s “Who.” It’s Homosassa hydroponic farmer George Gifford helping James Tremblay pick out some eggplant. It’s midwife Michelle Hale conducting classes at the Little Rock Cannery, where folks can learn about cooking, canning and handling preserves so “people can make the most of their fresh foods.” It’s volunteer Mike Sundquist, owner of Nature Coast Seafood, putting in hours running the General Store.
And it’s Luisa Palacio and Olga Correa of Tampa purchasing fresh quail eggs and an organic ribeye steak after an afternoon at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. “It’s our first time here; it’s really nice, we’ll be back,” Palacio said.
It really all began five years ago. The year was 2016, and Michael Defelice had it all. Almost.
With a loving wife, a house full of healthy children, and a sizable farm in Hernando County, who could want more? He even had some financial stability from disability benefits he receives for 12 years in the U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard, including stretches in the forward combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Michael wanted more, to give something back, something significant.
“I’ve gotten a lot of benefits in my life from this country, and it was important for me to return something to it. I didn’t want to just sit around and collect a paycheck,” he said. “I was taking care of my family, but I wasn’t working for the greater good. I felt a vacuum after the army.”
After he retired from the military in 2016, Defelice learned about a Jacksonville-based program called Veterans Farmers run by Matthew Burke designed to teach vets about farming as rehabilitation from the stress of active duty. His interest in agriculture was also cultivated by the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which offers certification by a program called Homegrown for Heroes.
Giving Back while learning to Farm
Defelice admits that when he bought his farm, “I couldn’t grow weeds in my yard, so I picked a lot of brains and talked to people.” One of them was Director Stacy Strickland of the University of Florida, Institute of Agricultural Sciences Extension; another was Director Mike Walker of the Brooksville Parks and Recreation Department, who invited Defelice to take part in the Brooksville Farmers Market.
He also made a vital volunteer contact in 2018 named Angela Okrasinski, who has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Defelice on bringing their shared vision to fruition: Bringing local fresh food producers and consumers together so that area residents could eat better and farmers could develop more markets for their goods.
Okrasinski owns a local farm that includes fruit trees and chickens. At the time she met Defelice three years ago she was involved in Hernando’s Farmers Market, where she served as the volunteer vendor manager. In that capacity she had meetings with local groups that aimed to expand the customer base and network growers with area restaurants.
Networking Local Farmers with Customers
“Local producers needed more customers,” Defelice said. He stated consumers also needed help because in 2017 some 40 percent of county residents were below the poverty level and 26 percent received food assistance.
This demand triggered the location of the Hernando County Growers Association, Inc. (hernandogrowers.org) to the Little Rock Cannery at 15487 Citrus Way northwest of Brooksville at U.S. Route 98. A non-profit, all-volunteer growers cooperative, this group tackled two enterprises, the Little Rock Cannery and the Brooksville Farmers Market.
In 2020, the association reopened the Little Rock Cannery/Library and General Store at 15487 Citrus Way north of Brooksville through a 10-year lease with the owner, Hernando County. Built in the 1930s, this unique facility offers classes in canning, preserves, and cooking in a large, well-equipped kitchen.
The general store there offers many varied local items like fresh seafood, beef, venison, alligator, and pork from Florida. Fresh Meat along with honey, jewelry, pottery, and special soaps. Call 352-270-3071 for details. The store is open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
A General Store and Farmers Market serve the Community
The Brooksville Farmers Market has at least one vendor open each Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at the cannery. The outdoor market enables local farmers to sell their produce or items they’ve purchased from area growers fresh off the vine. Related efforts include the Farm to School and Farm to Restaurant initiatives that place area-grown products in this market.
These efforts embrace a number of related programs, like the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program administered by the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, which started getting food to low-income seniors countywide two years ago. The growers association also works with the Fresh Access Bucks and Feeding Florida initiatives to help farmers with organic growing methods and delivery of healthier food to consumers through assistance earmarked only for Florida fresh produce.
“We’re creating a commercial kitchen at the cannery to help local cottage-food industries by opening outlets for them,” Okrasinski noted. “Now they can sell food from a local incorporated business.” Of course, all the programs follow food-safety regulations from government health agencies that apply to them.
Defelice and Okrasinski deflect credit for their civic philanthropy: “The entire thing was done in partnership with local and state officials, including Brooksville Main Street, the City of Brooksville, the Board of County Commissioners, and the Florida Department of Health,” Defelice explained. “It’s not just me…Besides all the public and private agencies and programs involved, even my wife and my mother have worked really hard on this. I’ve had so much help.”
“Now any non-profit community group can be hosted by us,” he noted.
Local Growers provide Fresh Food
“People move here and don’t understand because you never get these things in the city. You have to get out to find fresh, local products,” Okrasinski stated of their focus. “There’s a lot of local farmers in Hernando County…that are under-appreciated. That’s how we eat.”
The growers association is about networking local farmers with consumers and other entities like schools and restaurants to fuel the area’s economic engine. For instance, Gifford has a hydroponics farm in Homosasssa, but today he is selling produce at the market that he picked up from Dade City farmers: “Yes, I’m the middle man.”
An All-Volunteer Organization provides Opportunities
Besides the health and economic benefits, the growers association and related programs also yield a spiritual harvest: Everyone who makes these things happen are volunteers, and all the money from sales go to defray costs or directly into the pockets of local producers and cottage industries.
If Defelice is the founder of this civic movement, Okrasinski typifies the future. Last April she was chosen to succeed him as president of the Growers Association, along with a new board of directors formed to guide all the organizations and events.
“Our plan now is to promote local small businesses and growers. We can help them sell products and teach people how to can foods and make better use of them,” she said.
Shopping Local benefits All – better Taste, better Nutrition, better Relationships and keeping the Profits in our Community
“Instead of going to big supermarkets they can go straight to local farms and producers; in fact, Publix buys from local growers in Florida,” Okrasinski said. She added supermarkets benefit from selling local products because they offer significantly better taste and nutrition than standard fare at very little additional cost: “Also, the money stays here…Ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’”
“It’s an investment my family thought was valuable,” Defelice mused of his work. “People come from Orlando and all over to participate in these events…They need to escape urban areas and visit country farms, become aware of what’s around them…What we’re doing also has an impact with tourist dollars here.”
Evidence of this was walking through the General Store while he spoke: A Massachusetts “snowbird”, Weeki Wachee resident Kathy Stevens was using Fresh Access food dollars to buy healthy fare while saving money at the same time.
“We love this place,” she said. “It’s worth the ride.”
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