Sarasota County Backyard Chicken Rules Finally Hatch

CLUCK and several North Port residents contend that, as more people become interested in organic gardening, interest in consuming homegrown rather than store-bought eggs and chickens may grow. ARCHIVE PHOTO

CLUCK and several North Port residents contend that, as more people become interested in organic gardening, interest in consuming homegrown rather than store-bought eggs and chickens may grow. ARCHIVE PHOTO

New rules permitting backyard chickens throughout most of Sarasota County are finally flying the coop.

After more than four years incubating, the County Commission on Tuesday supported rules that would allow up to four hens to be kept on properties within single-family residential areas.

The commission voted unanimously Tuesday to begin the public hearing process on the new rules. Two workshops are scheduled on Aug. 2 and 3 to discuss the proposed changes before they head to public hearings and then to the planning and county commissions in the following two months.

The issue of permitting backyard chickens has scrambled county leaders since early 2012, shortly after the city of Sarasota changed its rules to allow residents to keep up to four hens, but no roosters, in a coop on a single-family property.

CLUCK, a local advocacy group that helped craft the city rules, has pushed since to convince the county to adopt a similar stance but the rules repeatedly stalled amid concerns about how to enforce the rules and potential health concerns.

The proposed rules largely follow the city's and prohibit roosters, the slaughter of hens, and the sale of eggs or other related products onsite. They also establish rules regarding the type, size and placement of coops on properties and standards regarding odor and the prevention of rodents and other pests, according to the proposal.

Any unwanted chickens could be taken to the county's Health and Human Services Mosquito Control Division for utilization in its Sentinel Chicken Program, through which officials use chickens to monitor mosquito-borne illnesses, according to the proposal.

The county also will consider delaying the rules' effective date until the beginning of next year to give area homeowners associations time to consider whether they would like to update their rules to prohibit or restrict backyard chickens, zoning administrator Donna Thompson said. A review of the rules is planned in 2018.

Only commissioner Christine Robinson expressed problems with the proposed rules and admonished county staff for not hosting the workshops before Tuesday's vote. However, at least five more public meetings are planned on the rules, including the two workshops and required public hearings.

To date, the proposed rules have received widespread support, with more than 1,400 county residents signing a CLUCK petition, but it was two new residents and long-time chicken owners who stole the spotlight Tuesday morning.

Mary Jane Bailey, 12, and her little sister Vivian, 10, excited the commission with stories about the lessons learned and genuine fun they've had raising hens for the past six years.

“They're so cute,” Vivian said. “They make the best pets. They learn and you can teach them tricks and they're so fun.”

“Sometimes one will just curl up in your lap,” Mary Jane added.

The sisters left 11 hens when they recently moved from Santa Barbara, California, and want to raise a new flock when they settle into a home here. Those hens - including “Blondie,” “Daisy,” “Tacky,” “Lucy” and “Midnight” - are now cared for by a family they trust whose son was in Mary Jane's class (although “you can never trust a boy from math class,” Vivian teased).

For now, the uncertainty about where the county might allow backyard chickens is part of the reason the family has yet to buy a new home here, said Jeff Bailey, the girls' father.

“The 'Chicken Channel' is the best,” said Mary Jane of the family's tongue-in-cheek name for the fun they have watching and playing with their chickens. “I really, really want us to get a new flock here. I hope they let us.”

Activist Thwarts Library's "Evaluation" of a Special Section

A view of the pillars of the Selby Public Library, facing Selby Five Points Park and the Sarasota Opera House. A provision in Sarasota County’s comprehensive plan states that the county is required to maintain and pay for a special environmental section at the library. (H-T ARCHIVE)

A view of the pillars of the Selby Public Library, facing Selby Five Points Park and the Sarasota Opera House. A provision in Sarasota County’s comprehensive plan states that the county is required to maintain and pay for a special environmental section at the library. (H-T ARCHIVE)

Just strolling through Selby Library’s special collection on environmental matters and reading the book jackets there is like taking Introduction to Environmental Issues 101.

Some books are about local rivers and the waters of Sarasota Bay, and underground water, and mangroves, shore birds and manatees. Obvious things like that.

But others are about things you might not think of: Mosquitoes. Grass. Snails. Just walking through, the whole web of life thing kind of jumped out at me.

But I wasn’t at the Sarasota downtown library to browse. I was checking to see if the environmental books were still there. The fact is, some aren’t, and it is hard to even guess how many are gone.

It seems Maynard Hiss was right.

Hiss, a longtime environmental activist, had told me he was flabbergasted to learn through the grapevine that the county library’s special environmental section was being dismantled. Books were being quietly given away. Some other libraries had been invited to send people over to help themselves, and some did.

Nothing was announced publicly, you understand. The sign above the environmental section was in place as usual, with no added note alerting the public to any change.

So Hiss contacted County Administrator Tom Harmer to ask what was going on.

Harmer replied that he knew nothing, and directed Hiss to Sarabeth Kalajian, director if the library system.

I talked to her, too, but I don’t know what to think about what she told me.

By the time we spoke, Hiss had reminded county officials of a provision in Sarasota County’s comprehensive plan, a massive document with lots of details about development rules and the like. It has lots of details that few people know without looking them up.

But Hiss knew about one thing in there that Kalajian really should have been aware of: The comp plan clearly states that the county is required to maintain and pay for that special section, just as it has for many years.

So I’m pretty sure what I heard from Kalajian was some high-speed backpedaling.

No, she wasn’t dismantling the section, she told me. They were just evaluating it, considering some changes. After all, most people do environmental reading and research online now. Not many do it at public libraries.

“The use of it has really diminished,” Kalajian said. So she and the staff have been asking themselves, “Do we need a special collection?”

Yeah, and the same might be said about books in general, I said. Are you asking if we need a library at all?

No, she said. Some special sections are hot. The kids section, for instance. The section next to the environmental section — genealogy — is quite popular now. There are volunteers who come in to help people look up their relatives on other continents and such. It’s a thing.

But there’s no buzz in the environment section, so some, um, changes seemed to be called for, she said. Some scaling back, maybe.

Why? I asked. Is there a space crunch, or plans to use that area some other way? It looks pretty spacious up there on the second floor. Lots of room on the shelves. Is there a problem?

No, she said. No space problem, no plans. Just routine evaluation.

Right. Evaluation. The kind of evaluation that has employees leaking the word that the section is being killed, and the kind that lets other libraries come in and take whatever they want.

She didn’t mention those help-yourself giveaways until I did. Oh, she said, that was just the result of thinking that some environmental books and documents might be better off at New College or at Mote Marine Laboratory.

I see. Sounds like quite an evaluation. Instead of drawing attention to the collection — something the library staff is so good at — the intent was to keep it quiet and little noticed while giving away the best and most attractive books, no matter their cost. Soon maybe no one would even care what happens, after the section quietly shrinks to just a drab shelf or two.

Whatever the plan, I’m pretty sure the brakes are on now.

I’m convinced that, thanks to Hiss and his mention of that pesky provision of the comp plan, the library director's evaluation took a sudden turn just in time to save the section.

Or what's left of it.

2016 Locavore Index

Vermont once again tops all the other states in terms of their commitment to local food, according to the 2016 Locavore Index.

The Index ranks the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, using a variety of indicators related to local food production and consumption. It has been produced annually for five years by Strolling of the Heifers, a non-profit food advocacy organization based in Vermont.

“The Index has stimulated a lot of discussion and a lot of action in many states to improve their ranking, said Orly Munzing, founder and executive director of Strolling of the Heifers. “We’re proud that Vermont is still number one, but it is great to see so many other states following Vermont’s lead in building strong local food systems. The purpose of the Index is to stimulate efforts across the country to use more local food in homes, restaurants, schools and institutions.”

After Vermont, the next four spots in the Index are occupied by Maine, Oregon, Montana and New Hampshire, in that order. Montana is a newcomer to the top five, moving up from seventh place on the strength of strong investment of USDA Know-Your-Farmer grant funding.

Rounding out the top 10 are Hawaii, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia.

“While it’s exciting that Vermont remains number one in the nation for local food production and consumption, it is also exciting to witness the great strides other states are realizing in reaching these goals,” said Chuck Ross, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. “As we all know, farmers are very effective educators, and often best positioned to promote agricultural literacy in our communities. The future of a successful agricultural economy in which farmers and producers can prosper and consumers have access to safe, affordable, healthy food depends upon an agriculturally literate and engaged public. The Locavore Index helps us track our progress and work towards that success.”

This year’s Index incorporates new data from the US Department of Agriculture on its Know Your Farmer – Know your Food grants. These were calculated on a per-capita basis for each state. Vermont, the top-ranked state, received $21.43 per person in such grants, more than twice the amount for North Dakota ($10.10), which came in second in this category.

The Index also incorporates updated information on the number of farmers markets, the number of CSAs, the number of food hubs — all compared on a per-capita basis — along with the percentage of each state’s school districts with active Farm-to-School programs and the percentage of the budgets of those programs spent on local food.

The index continues to include data from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, including data on the dollar volume of direct-to-the-public food sales by farmers, including sales at farmers markets, community-supported agriculture operations (CSAs), farmstands and online sales. But since this Census data has not been updated since 2012, its weight within the Index has been reduced.

Puerto Rico is included in the Index for the first time this year. Even though its local-food movement is still fledgling (it has only one CSA), it came in 41st, ahead of New Jersey and Georgia, on the strength of a strong farm-to-school program in its schools.

Martin Langeveld, who researches and compiles the Index for Strolling of the Heifers, commenting on the evolution of the Index, said, “It’s interesting to see that each year, there is a greater variety of metrics available around local food, and developing more of them is important. Many states and the federal government have programs to build the consumption of local foods, but to assess the effect of those efforts, we need more and better metrics.”

(For the full data set on which the Index is based, download this Excel sheet.)

Farm to Fable: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam Ponders Curbing Food Misrepresentation

Adam Putnam

Florida's agriculture commissioner Wednesday said the state needs to better understand the definition of "Fresh from Florida" and more thoroughly police the claims restaurateurs make to customers.

Adam Putnam's comments were spurred by the Tampa Bay Times' investigative series, called Farm to Fable, which published in April and exposed food misrepresentations at Florida's so-called farm-to-table restaurants and farmers markets.

Before publication, Putnam declined all interviews and channeled comments through his spokesmen. But since Farm to Fable was widely circulated and picked up by national news outlets, Putnam has started to speak.

On Tuesday, he made his first statements to the Times, vowing to crack down on deceptive practices and misuse of the state's Fresh from Florida marketing program. And on Wednesday, he went into much more detail on a sidewalk outside Cruise Terminal 6 of Port Tampa Bay. He was there to discuss exporting Florida foods at the first Fresh from Florida Export Summit.

In a 15-minute interview, Putnam talked to me about the investigation and changes it might cause at the state level.

What kind of changes do you foresee for the Fresh from Florida program?

We were already assessing the rules on how the Fresh from Florida logo could be used. In the past, the attitude had been that we were just happy that anybody wanted it, happy that it added value. That had been the attitude of prior administrations: How do we get this thing to grow legs? Now that it has matured, we need to build a box around what's an appropriate use of it...

The logo is predominantly used on field-packed items. So when heads of lettuce go into the box, the box is preprinted with a Fresh from Florida logo. It's pretty simple. It gets more complicated as value-added items have sought to use it: Fresh from Florida beer, Fresh from Florida seasoning, Fresh from Florida barbecue sauce, Fresh from Florida jelly. That's where it gets interesting. And what we're evaluating is differentiating "Fresh from Florida" and "from Florida," so that (a product) gets credit for being a locally produced or processed item, but it doesn't mean that the salt was mined in Florida that forms the basis of the barbecue butt rub. That's the differentiation that's going on.

What you highlighted in your articles was blatant, illegal misrepresentation under the restaurant statute that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation is supposed to enforce.

But as we know, it's very hard for them to do that. They're not looking for that kind of thing. They're not in a position to say, "That's not an heirloom tomato, that's a conventional tomato." There aren't the tools or the time.

They are the restaurant regulator. They are in the restaurant, they have access to invoices, to the kitchen, to the chefs, to the prep cooks. What I view my role as is - this is why we've organized a meeting with (DBPR Secretary Ken Lawson) - how can we provide our resources, whether it's testing equipment or training of their inspectors on the agricultural side of the house, so they're not looking at all tomatoes as being equal? Those are the types of things where I think we can play a supporting role to their investigators who are in the restaurants every day.

From a consumer standpoint, do you envision a tool that might enable a diner to go into a restaurant and figure out what on the menu might have come from Florida?

Yes, we have that on our website. It was not designed with restaurant fraud in mind; it was designed with, "I'm on my way to the grocery store, what can I expect is in season from Florida?" We have a very simple calendar that identifies what items from Florida are in season during which months. It was originally designed for grocery stores but it could be applied to restaurants.

Farmers in Florida really feel that they've been kneecapped in recent years by restaurants fraudulently claiming to serve their stuff.

I was talking to a rice farmer in Jacksonville last week about this. He said, "I've walked into restaurants and said, 'You need to erase my farm because you haven't bought from me in a year.'"

Is there anything the state can do to make restaurants toe the line?

Restaurants need to be held to account on the misrepresentation law that's on the books. When you walk into a farm-to-table-themed restaurant, there's an expectation that they will meet that brand promise. And you probably have an expectation that you're paying extra for that. That's built into your experience: "I'm going to pay extra for the experience of this locally grown, Fresh from Florida type of meal." The customer is being defrauded because they've paid extra for that brand promise. And in many instances, the farmer, whose name is still on that chalkboard from six months ago, is also having their brand undermined. They may be struggling to pay their bills when this restaurant is using their good name to up-charge customers.

Is there any way the state would consider implementing a legal definition for "local," or some of these terms like "sustainable" or "natural"?

The feds have struggled with that for a long time. I'm not aware of a conversation going on about a legal definition. That's an interesting question. In your research, is anyone doing this?

No one is. Publix, Safeway, Whole Foods, everyone has vastly different definitions. And with the outdoor markets, why don't they have to label country of origin? Why do they operate by different rules?

It certainly reinforces how important Florida's country of origin labeling law is. We were the first in the nation to have it. In fact, the federal law is modeled on the Florida law. And that was pretty controversial at the time, but consumers need to know where their food comes from and then they can make their own decisions.

Then why do the outdoor markets get a free pass?

Because they're small and not a major part of commerce. The idea of applying the same bureaucracy to them as you would to a major corporation is not something that had ever been seen as a necessity. It's the same reason you don't treat garage sales the same as Walmart.

Why not require the market managers to label resellers?

My instinct on that - but this is all taking on a new level of thought for me - is that I am much more upset about people being cheated because they're paying more for something they're not getting at a restaurant. If they're at a farmers market, they probably aren't paying a premium. They may be being fed a story that's not so about their free-range chickens back home, but the real economic harm that is occurring to consumers, the greatest economic harm, is occurring at that restaurant. That gives me a lot more heartburn.

The farmers markets should adopt whatever policy they think is appropriate. Some of them are going to take a more pure view and others are just happy to have a wide range of vendors that attracts a wide range of people to try to encourage people to come downtown on a Saturday or Sunday. There are a lot of motivations for why farmers markets are popping up in towns.

At the end of the day, if that farmers market is going into a community that's underserved and they're selling fresh fruits and vegetables, that's still a win. We have supported, through grants, farmers markets and gardens in Overtown and in downtown Orlando's Parramore area, legitimate food deserts. It doesn't keep me up at night that they're eating Washington or North Carolina apples at a Florida farmers market. I'm excited about people taking an interest in fresh fruits and vegetables.