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Locally grown is becoming the new mantra

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)--Until recently, Nancy Montgomery had gone through life without ever cooking collards. But now that she is growing them in her backyard, Montgomery has gone collards crazy.

And don't get her started on the tomatoes.

"The tomatoes are just mouthwatering. They taste so much better than what you (buy) in the store," Montgomery said. "I grow collard greens, cabbage, tomatoes, beans, peas, green peppers, and I'm just putting in squash and cantaloupe today. I'm really excited about it."

Montgomery is one of a growing number of residents with their own vegetable gardens. Many more are buying into the local food movement--trying to eat food that was grown or raised in the region.

Even the Alachua County government is looking for ways to help people grow food through community gardens, policies and possibly starting a garden at the jail to offset food costs there.

And setting the tone nationwide, the family of President Barack Obama has created a vegetable garden at the White House.

Advocates say locally grown food--particularly organic--is more nutritious and safer. It boosts the local economy by providing jobs and income for farmers. It provides some security should food supplies be disrupted in an unstable world, and it helps the environment in many ways, including reducing the amount of energy it takes to ship food.

And growing your own food is cheaper than buying.

Stefanie Hamblen, editor of the Hogtown HomeGrown website and newsletter, is organizing the second annual Eat Local Challenge for May. She said the interest has increased from last year. "I'm just amazed--I have more participating restaurants, more sponsors. Everybody seems to be into, 'Let's do this local thing however we can,'" Hamblen said. "Things are booming. I see more farmers at the farmers market, and more markets. And edible landscapes is something I'm seeing more and more of--people doing gardens in their yard."

Challenge participants log everything they eat and where it was grown or raised. Participating restaurants must detail for their patrons in the challenge where the food is from. The idea is to try to get as much food as possible from within 150 miles.

Finding some foods is relatively easy. Area farmers markets are full of vendors selling produce from their farms, honey from their hives and milk from their dairy cows.

Ward's Supermarket stocks a lot of locally grown foods while fish mongers such as Northwest Seafood carry fresh catch from the Gulf and Atlantic.

Rosas Farm off U.S. 441 in northern Marion County is one of the few area farms that sells its own organic grass-fed beef, free range chickens and wild boar.

There's no question whether their chickens are truly free range--they have the run of the grounds and will even strut into the house if the door is left open. And the lush pastures are a far cry from dusty, 1,000-head feedlots of the West.

Owners Al and Erin Rosas have farmed their 100 acres since 1990. The same mineral-rich grass that feeds thoroughbreds is munched by cows rotated from pasture to pasture to allow for regrowth of the grass.

The Rosas--Al has long been a chef and Erin grew up on a farm--are passionate about the health, environmental and social benefits of eating grass-fed livestock that is locally grown compared to corn-fed beef pumped with hormones and antibiotics that can come from anywhere in the world.

"Some of the things we are proud of is the fact that by raising animals more compassionately, people are more compassionate. There is more of a value to what you do and what you get. There is value in knowing your farmer and your food," Al Rosas said.

Added Erin Rosas, "People are really taking ownership in the food again. They are not leaving it up to somebody else anymore. Food is something that should sustain us and the planet. It shouldn't be belly up to the bar. All-you-can-eat is the worst thing that happened to us."

Alachua County officials are exploring ways to promote local food through community gardens on county property, policies that could encourage gardening and creating a vegetable garden at the jail.

Commissioner Paula DeLaney wants to try to get a tally of all of the land in the county that is currently in use to produce consumable food and what the potential land capacity can be.

County Manager Randall Reid said the county has had discussions with other institutions about ways to increase vegetable gardening in the community.

Joan Rothrock has had the bug for a while. She has grown vegetables in a backyard garden for years and gardens with students at Duval Elementary School. She is now trying her green thumb at gardening in raised square-foot beds after taking a class from the county extension service.

"Why do I do it? Oh, because it is so much fun to go out and pick your vegetables right before you eat them," Rothrock said. "And I am so for buying local food. That is totally the most important environmental issue and change that we could make that would make a big difference."



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