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Non-Profit Farm Partners with Veterans to Transform Food Distribution

Operation Farm 2 Health will take place on the property of Sweeny's Ark in Dunnellon, Florida. The 30-acre free-range chicken farm and commercial rabbitry offered Operation Farm 2 Health space to grow, wash and package food. Photo courtesy of Karen King.
Operation Farm 2 Health will take place on the property of Sweeny's Ark in Dunnellon, Florida. The 30-acre free-range chicken farm and commercial rabbitry offered Operation Farm 2 Health space to grow, wash and package food. Photo courtesy of Karen King.

Karen King wants to change how Floridians eat.

The co-owner of Mt. Citra Farm said she wants Floridians to purchase tomatoes grown organically and locally, rather than from California.

King, a Marion County resident, is starting a non-profit farm called Operation Farm 2 Health. She said the multifaceted program will teach volunteer military veterans and beginning farmers to grow, wash and pack food.

Food grown locally is fresher, said Danielle Treadwell, an associate professor who works on local food initiatives in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. She also said food grown organically can have higher nutrient levels and buying locally benefits the local economy.

Right now, local food production and distribution is limited in Florida because farmers can't sell goods locally at prices that allow them to stay in business, Treadwell said.

As a result, she said there are not enough local produce farmers or enough channels to distribute the goods across Florida.

“It’s a full program,” King said. “Every aspect of agriculture will be taught.”

King said the program is partnering with veterans because Operation Farm 2 Health will be a chapter of 10 CAN Inc., a Christian Adventure Network that works to honor and help the families of veterans and others through several avenues, including agriculture.

Operation Farm 2 Health will produce certified organic food and will be located in Dunnellon at Seely’s Ark, which is a 30-acre free-range poultry farm and commercial rabbitry. Seely's Ark volunteered to let King use the land for agriculture.

King said her husband will till the land and begin planting in about two weeks, so they don’t miss the growing season. She said they want to start training as soon as possible.

Planning for the program started a few months ago. She is still in the process of recruiting volunteers, applying for grants and receiving non-profit certification.

After Operation Farm 2 Heatlh volunteers harvest their first crops, people will be able to purchase the food at farmer's markets.

King is also making the food available for purchase with SNAP and EBT because she said she wants low-income families to be able to eat fresh and local. Some of the products will also be donated to Oak-Griner Baptist Church food pantry.

While the Florida agriculture market allows for high exports, the in-state trade is limited, Treadwell said. This means the majority of Florida-grown produce doesn't get eaten by Floridians.

The result is a shortage of local farmers selling fresh fruit and vegetables locally.

“With 19 million people in the state of Florida, we should not have a problem trying to sell produce,” King said.

King was unable to get a distributor from South Florida to pick up products from her own farm because to send a driver, the distributor needed a larger quantity of products to pick up.

But she said local farmers don’t increase production because they feel there aren’t enough distribution channels.

“It’s like the chicken or the egg,” King said.

Ultimately, King said she wants to form an aggregation center to increase the likelihood of a distributor picking up their crops. The food grown by Operation Farm 2 Health volunteers would be packed on a pallet with other local farmer’s food.

“We’re hoping that, ultimately, Marion County becomes an aggregation hub, and we can feed the whole state,” King said.

King said she knows it sounds like a huge goal, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots.

Partnership with 10 CAN Inc. and veterans

For now, Operation Farm 2 Health will start by growing crops like broccoli, onions and cauliflower.

The founder of 10-Can Inc., Matthew Burke, said agriculture can be therapeutic for veterans because they learn to create instead of destroy.

Burke is a retired United States Air Force master sergeant. Injuries he received in Afghanistan ended his military career, but he has found agriculture helpful in his own transition to non-military life because he can continue serving the community.

Justin Stone, who will be volunteering with Operation Farm 2 Health, said he finds agriculture fulfilling for the same reason.

“Being in the military, a lot of us are kind of driven toward service of one form or another, and so their end goal of trying to benefit the community and support the local agriculture are all things I’m passionate about,” Stone said. “It’s an easy fit."

Stone, 33, is medically retired from the army and is now studying agribusiness full time at the College of Central Florida in Ocala.

King’s goal is to train 50 volunteers in 2016 — veterans and beginning farmers alike.

“I would like to drive 301 or 441 or any of these side roads and see rows of produce,” King said. “Because right now, I see grass, and I see pastures, and I see food that people are buying from Mexico or California that could be grown out our back doors.”

Lindsay is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.