I've been writing my Eat Near column since April, and I can tell you the part I like best with no hesitation: meeting the impressive and interesting people who are driving the Suncoast's locavore conversation.
So when I look back on 2012, while I'm tempted to name my favorite local food products, it's the folks out there milking the goats and hosting neighborhood meetings that really stand out.
With that in mind, here are 10 local food heroes, each one worthy of your respect and admiration.
(And, it should go without saying, this list is in no particular order.)
You probably know Burkard even if you've never met him. He's the guy at the downtown farmers' market with the sign advertising his legacy as the only original vendor left. Burkard has been doing his local thing for decades, and, among other things, sells unctuous fresh eggs.
The executive director of Transition Sarasota, an organization dedicated to fostering local "resilience and self-reliance," Hall has been a major voice for local food since moving back here from Colorado, and helped put on this year's Eat Local Week, starring the inimitable Joel Salatin. Transition Sarasota's website is a great resource for anyone looking to explore our area's edible bounty.
In just over two years, Poire has led a revitalization of Crowley Museum and Nature Center, turning the pioneer property into an experimental hub for local agriculture. She also spearheaded this month's Sugarcane Harvest, which blew minds with its vintage sugarcane-grinding demonstration, taffy-pulling and more.
Being a locavore isn't just about searching out the best products from your area, it's also about transforming those products into something you want to eat. And that's where top flight chefs like Indigenous' Steve Phelps come in. Phelps' homage to Southwest Florida food opened to rave reviews in 2011, and has only grown in stature since. Zagat recognized the restaurant this fall, and Florida Trend gave it a Golden Spoon.
So you grow some amazing produce - how do you get that in the hands of the best local restaurants? That's where Matthews and the Suncoast Food Alliance come in, connecting area farmers and the region's best chefs. Matthews has also been a strong bridge between our foodie community and Tampa Bay's.
Ben and Shelby King
I'm cheating by including two people in one spot (sue me) and really, this award should go to the whole King clan, which cranks out superb veggies on its eastern Bradenton farm. The farm also played host to this fall's Food Day celebration - a relaxed, friendly powwow featuring local food vendors and activists. King Family Farm is a testament to growing food the right way.
In addition to his tireless work researching local agriculture as Sarasota County's U.F. Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension agent, Kluson has also played a role in the Crowley rethink, serving as the property's board chair. I've also seen the man dance, and I'm telling you, he can cut a rug.
Eva and Chris Worden
Worden Farm may be located all the way down in Punta Gorda, but don't think for a minute that the Wordens don't deserve a spot on this list (and yes, I'm cheating again by including two people). In addition to serving as advisers and helpers for a whole host of up-and-coming ag entrepreneurs, the Wordens offer the most consistently excellent goods at each Saturday's downtown farmers' market.
Since 2009, Miller and the organization he helped found - Sarasota CLUCK (Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping) - have worked hard to convince local governments to loosen up restrictions on keeping backyard chickens. And while CLUCK won within Sarasota's city limits, the group has now focused its attention on getting the county to change its ways.
Estabrook's no local, but his book "Tomatoland" (out now in paperback) should be required reading for anyone who remotely cares about the role agriculture plays in Southwest Florida. He documents the flavor-killing practices of industrial agriculture, as well as the human misery so endemic to Florida agribusiness - including slavery. Yes, slavery.