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.

At Tampa Bay Farm-to-Table Restaurants, You’re Being Fed Fiction

 STEVE MADDEN | Times

STEVE MADDEN | Times

The restaurant's chalkboard makes claims as you enter from the valet parking lot. At the hostess stand, a cheery board reads, “Welcome to local, farm-fresh Boca.”

Brown butcher paper tops tables and lettuces grow along a wooden wall. In a small market case, I see canned goods from here and produce from somewhere. Check the small print: blackberries from Mexico and blueberries from California.

With the tagline “Local, simple and honest,” Boca Kitchen Bar Market was among the first wave of farm-to-table restaurants in Tampa Bay to make the assertion “we use local products whenever possible.” I’ve reviewed the food. My own words are right there on their website: “local, thoughtful and, most importantly, delicious.”

But I’ve been had, from the snapper down to the beef.

It’s not just Boca. At Pelagia Trattoria at International Plaza, the “Florida blue crab” comes from the Indian Ocean.

Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights shouts “Death to Pretenders” on its menu, but pretends cheese curds are homemade and shrimp are from Florida.

At Maritana Grille at the Loews Don CeSar, chefs claim to get pork from a farmer who doesn’t sell to them.

This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby.

More often than not, those things are fairy tales. A long list of Tampa Bay restaurants are willing to capitalize on our hunger for the story.

 Boca Kitchen Bar Market opened in Riverview's Winthrop Town Centre in December 2015. The first location opened in 2012. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Boca Kitchen Bar Market opened in Riverview's Winthrop Town Centre in December 2015. The first location opened in 2012. (LARA CERRI | Times)

People want “local,” and they’re willing to pay. Local promises food that is fresher and tastes better; it means better food safety; it yields a smaller carbon footprint while preserving genetic diversity; it builds community.

“They say if you spend your money locally, it gets multiplied three times,” said Michael Novilla, who owns Nova 535 event space in St. Petersburg and tries to buy local, from soup to soap.

He was speaking of the local multiplier effect, a term coined in the 1930s by economist John Maynard Keynes. And part of Novilla’s motivation is health, finding clean sources for the food he eats. So if he found out markets and restaurants he loved were playing fast and loose with the truth?

“It would be like finding out your husband was married to someone else the whole time.”

One of his favorite places to eat local is The Mill.

The Mill in St. Petersburg opened last summer to instant acclaim. With walls that look like tooled leather saddles, a men’s room sink inset in a tractor tire and chandeliers made of wagon wheels and mason jars, it’s what the designer called “farmhouse industrial chic.” Sandwiches run around $13 at lunch, and at dinner, sous vide fried chicken hits $24.

We gave it three stars out of four, and in December it was awarded best new restaurant in Florida Trend’s Golden Spoon awards.

Servers are likely to start proceedings with a mini-disquisition on how all the food comes from within a couple hundred miles of the restaurant (mileage may vary).

“Everybody’s spiel is a little different,” said chef-owner Ted Dorsey. “But I say a 250-mile radius.”

Dorsey said he buys pork from a small Tallahassee farm through food supplier Master Purveyors. But Master Purveyors said it doesn’t sell pork from Tallahassee. Dorsey said he uses quail from Magnolia Farms in Lake City. Master Purveyors said the quail is from Wyoming. Dorsey said he buys dairy from Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka through Weyand Food Distributors. Weyand said it doesn’t distribute Dakin. Dorsey said he gets local produce from Suncoast Food Alliance and Local Roots. Both said they have not sold to The Mill. He named three seafood suppliers. Two checked out, but a third, Whitney and Sons, said they had not sold to The Mill yet. They hope to in the future.

I called him on all this. He said he needed to speak with his chef, Zach West, and get back to us. The results didn’t get any closer: farmed trout from Idaho, beef from Colorado, yellowfin tuna off the northern East Coast.

“Local Florida proteins are not quality,” Dorsey explained. But what about the mileage claims?

“Well, we serve local within reason.”

 The Mill in St. Petersburg features a “farmhouse industrial chic” look, according to the designer, one wall an installation of rust-freckled gears, cogs, wheels and pipes. (LARA CERRI | Times)

The Mill in St. Petersburg features a “farmhouse industrial chic” look, according to the designer, one wall an installation of rust-freckled gears, cogs, wheels and pipes. (LARA CERRI | Times)

If you eat food, you are being lied to every day.

The food supply chain is so vast and so complicated. It has yielded extra-virgin olive oil that is actually colored sunflower oil, Parmesan cheese bulked up with wood pulp, and a horsemeat scandal that, for a while, rendered Ikea outings Swedish meatball-free.

Everywhere you look, you see the claims: “sustainable,” “naturally raised,” “organic,” “non-GMO,” “fair trade,” “responsibly grown.” Restaurants have reached new levels of hyperbole.

What makes buying food different from other forms of commerce is this: It’s a trust-based system. How do you know the Dover sole on your plate is Dover sole? Only that the restaurateur said so.

And how can you be sure the strawberries your toddler is gobbling are free of pesticides? Only because the vendor at the farmers market said so.

Your purchases are unverifiable unless you drive to that farm or track back through a restaurant’s distributors and ask for invoices.

I did.

For several months, I sifted through menus from every restaurant I’ve reviewed since the farm-to-table trend started. Of 239 restaurants still in business, 54 were making claims about the provenance of their ingredients.

For fish claims that seemed suspicious, I kept zip-top baggies in my purse and tucked away samples. The Times had them DNA tested by scientists at the University of South Florida. I called producers and vendors. I visited farms.

My conclusion? Just about everyone tells tales. Sometimes they are whoppers, sometimes they are fibs borne of negligence or ignorance, and sometimes they are nearly harmless omissions or “greenwashing.”

I have been a restaurant critic since 1991 and have always known there are fraudulent menu claims. This “housemade dessert” is Sysco’s Fudgy Wudgy chocolate layer cake I’ve eaten a dozen times. That “fresh snapper” has done serious freezer time. I know about the St. Petersburg restaurant that refilled Evian bottles with tap, the fancy Tampa restaurant where the “house wine” is a dump of open bottles on their last legs.

It was around 2012 that Tampa Bay menus sprouted the sentence “we source locally” near the admonition about consuming raw or undercooked meats. Fiction started to seem like the daily special.

Most restaurants buy food from one of a small handful of distributors who source products in bulk at the best price from around the world.

The national biggies are Sysco and US Foods. Smaller Florida-based companies include Cheney Brothers and Weyand. Then there are specialty distributors such as Master Purveyors in Tampa or Culinary Classics in Orlando. Most restaurants do not have the time or wherewithal to deal directly with farmers and producers; most farmers and producers don’t have the infrastructure to do their own sales, marketing and delivery.

So the storytelling begins.

 The F**k Monsanto Salad at Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights has ingredients from Sanwa, a wholesaler on Hillsborough Avenue. (ALEXANDRA ZAYAS | Times)

The F**k Monsanto Salad at Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights has ingredients from Sanwa, a wholesaler on Hillsborough Avenue. (ALEXANDRA ZAYAS | Times)

Mermaid Tavern has been a Seminole Heights draw for craft beer since it opened in 2011. In 2015, Gary Moran, chef-owner of the defunct restaurant Wimauma, took over in the kitchen at the restaurant owned by Becky Flanders and Lux DeVoid, tweaking an edgy, independent-minded menu.

The restaurant’s tagline is “Death to Pretenders,” and one of the appetizers is the “F**k Monsanto Salad.” Monsanto, if you need a reminder, has come under fire for innovations such as Agent Orange, Roundup and genetically modified “frankenseeds.”

The menu reads: This menu is free of hormones, antibiotics, chemical additives, genetic modification, and virtually from scratch. We fry in organic coconut oil and source local distributors, farmers, brewers and family wineries … Our fish is fresh from Florida or sustainable/wild fisheries.

During Tampa Bay Beer Week, I stopped in to eat.

“Do you make your cheese curds here?”

“Yes,” said the bartender, “everything is made in house from scratch.”

Only it’s not. Those cheese curds arrive in a box. The fish and chips, which the menu says uses wild Alaskan pollock, are made from frozen Chinese pollock treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, a common preservative.

And although the menu says its shrimp are Florida wild caught, they are actually farm-raised in India, Preference Brand from Gulf Coast Seafood.

Moran didn’t deny it.

“We try to do local and sustainable as much as possible, but it’s not 100 percent,” he said. “For the price point we’re trying to sell items, it’s just not possible.”

And that F**k Monsanto Salad? Moran said he buys his produce at wholesaler Sanwa on Hillsborough Avenue. According to Sanwa produce buyer Beatrice Reyes, while produce is labeled by country of origin, it would not be labeled as “local” or “non-GMO.” Unless you’re buying from Sanwa’s small organic section, there’s no way to assure you’re getting non-GMO. Even some certified organic foods have been found to contain GMOs.

Could some of the ingredients in the salad be grown from Monsanto seed?

“It’s really hard to find non-GMO produce,” Moran said.

Moran followed up via email, claiming to also shop at farmers markets and providing a list of ingredients he believes to be non-GMO.

 Jim Wood hangs with his pigs at Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park in 2013. His pork is produced without artificial enhancers, preservatives, chemicals or added moisture or fat. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Jim Wood hangs with his pigs at Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park in 2013. His pork is produced without artificial enhancers, preservatives, chemicals or added moisture or fat. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Government oversight regarding the word “local” is nearly non-existent. In many cases, farmers police things themselves.

Jim Wood pasture-raises Hereford pigs at his Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park. He’s so frustrated with restaurants lying about using his pork that his invoices now say, “You cannot use my name unless you reference the line item sold.” That includes chalkboards.

“Chefs make a lot more money by using my name and selling someone else’s product,” he said. “There are some chefs who respect us and respect our brand, and others who use it for monetary gain without compensating us.

“I don’t think Adam Putnam has a clue what’s going on.”

He was referring to Florida’s two-term Commissioner of Agriculture and likely candidate for governor. Putnam oversees Fresh from Florida, a state-run food marketing program with an annual budget just under $10 million. The program was created to give small producers an avenue to be part of a brand. Recently, the program has sponsored advertising on an Xfinity Series race car.

In 2013, an On the Menu program was added for restaurants. Restaurants fill out a two-part application and, once accepted, are able to use the Fresh from Florida logo to identify ingredients grown or produced in the state.

Here’s how it goes awry.

Restaurants supply vendor information up front about their sources for Florida-grown products, said Putnam’s press secretary, Aaron Keller. But otherwise, the program is an honor system. No restaurant has ever been demoted or removed.

And while the Fresh from Florida logo is supposed to apply to specific ingredients, restaurateurs may slap it on menus, giving the impression that it represents everything.

Putnam declined several requests for interviews. Keller said the program was never intended to be regulatory and that its aim was to encourage reputable restaurants to source Florida products.

And if they lie?

“Should a restaurant misuse the program or intentionally mislead consumers, that’s a different matter entirely, which we would want to pursue.”

I called Joel Salatin, arguably the country’s most famous farmer, whom you might recognize from the documentary Food, Inc. or from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He opined while waiting for a load of manure at his Polyface farm in Virginia.

“Anybody who trusts the government with our food hasn’t been paying attention very much,” Salatin said. “The government’s track record on food is pretty abysmal.”

“We’re on the front edge of a “local-food tsunami,” he said. And nearly no one is keeping watch.

For 40,000-some Florida restaurants, 191 inspectors from the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation oversee them all for safety, sanitation and — occasionally — lies. By comparison, Georgia, with about half the population, has 300 inspectors. Ohio has 637 for about 22,000 restaurants.

In the past two years, Florida inspectors found roughly 750 food misrepresentation violations. Of them, 123 restaurants were fined, with an average fine for first-time offenders between $150 and $300.

Count among the violators Koto Japanese Steak House and Royal Palace Thai in Tampa’s trendy SoHo District, and That’s Amore on Harbour Island. Places like Tarpon Springs’ now-closed Zante Cafe Neo were repeat offenders for misrepresenting fish.

Old-timers like Gulfport’s La Cote Basque were dinged for advertising veal schnitzel dishes but having no veal in sight. “No packages commercially labeled veal (and) no veal invoices are present (but a) large volume of frozen pork chops and sliced pork” were observed. Wholesale veal can cost three times as much as pork. For pork-eschewing Muslims and Jews: Surprise.

None of these was fined.

Of the 95 misrepresentations in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties over the past two years, none had to do with farm-to-table myths. None were because conventional produce was substituted for advertised organic, or because commodity beef was swapped for “grass-fed,” or because “local” greens were really month-old Mexican spring mix.

On average, restaurants are inspected twice a year, more if a restaurant has chronic infractions. An inspector can’t know any of those things just by peering into a walk-in refrigerator.

 Guests eat at the Maritana Grille at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel in 2013. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Guests eat at the Maritana Grille at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel in 2013. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Maritana Grille at the Don Cesar gets the highest Zagat ratings of any restaurant along Pinellas County’s beaches. It’s the top restaurant at the pink palace built at the height of the Jazz Age. Entrees can run $28 to $48, and a three-course tasting menu with wine pairings is $95.

In February, Maritana listed Jim Wood’s Palmetto Creek pork on the menu. Wood said that he had not sold to the Don CeSar since the departure of previous chef Gavin Pera.

Chef Jose Cuarta took over about seven months ago and inherited a menu with a section titled Small Farms.

The menu listed Hammock Hollow squash with heirloom tomato and olives. Hammock Hollow, a certified organic farm in Island Grove, Fla., has sold lettuces and tomatoes to fancy hotels such as the Willard in Washington, D.C., for more than 30 years.

Hammock Hollow owner Charlie Andrews hasn’t had squash for months, he said, and is definitely not selling it to Maritana Grille.

Asked about this, Cuarta said, “That should come off the menu.”

Asked about the provenance of the unspecified “small farms” venison, Cuarta said he buys it from Jackman Ranch in Clewiston. Jackman’s Mark Hoegh said that, while he does sell the Don CeSar wagyu filet mignon, he does not sell them venison, because he does not produce venison.

And the section’s “Long Island duck”? It’s actually from Joe Jurgielewicz & Son, a duck farm in Pennsylvania. This matters. Long Island is an area long noted for producing some of the finest Pekin ducks in the world.

 Bob Ulrich in USF’s College of Marine Science prepares a seafood sample to be sent away for a DNA test. (JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times)

Bob Ulrich in USF’s College of Marine Science prepares a seafood sample to be sent away for a DNA test. (JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times)

With its location at Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel and menu of high-end Italian, Pelagia has been a hangout for Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rays players and a regular go-to for business travelers. Hosting events such as a Florida strawberry tasting menu, chef Brett Gardiner has been an active participant in Fresh from Florida promotions.

In March, Pelagia’s menu listed Three Suns Ranch wild boar ragout. Three Suns owner Keith Mann, who has masterminded a plan to take in trapped nuisance hogs in Punta Gorda and have them USDA slaughtered for meat, said no. This has happened to him with several restaurants.

“They want the story and they don’t want to pay the price… I consider it theft. It’s stealing our hard work.”

About Pelagia, he said: “We’ve never sold to them.”

Gardiner said he was surprised Three Suns was named on the menu and that it was a mistake, a holdover from the past, when he’d purchased the pork through a distributor.

The menu touted “local” burrata mozzarella on the caprese salad. Gardiner said it was a product from Fort Lauderdale called Fioretta.

The menu also listed Zellwood corn polenta, Zellwood being Florida’s most famous sweet corn, grown about 15 miles north of Orlando.

“We buy fresh corn from them and cook it down,” said Pelagia sous chef Tim Ducharme.

When reminded that Zellwood corn isn’t in season now, Ducharme said, “Well, we buy fresh corn from someone.”

About the menu’s Florida blue crab:

“We don’t really use blue crab,” Ducharme said. “It’s a jumbo lump crab canned product from US Foods out of Miami.”

The Times had the crab DNA tested by Bob Ulrich in USF’s College of Marine Science, the identification performed by PureMolecular.

Pelagia’s crab is actually a species called “swimming blue crab” from the Indian or West Pacific Ocean. The FDA requires that this be sold simply as “crab” or as “swimming blue crab.”

“If they are selling this as Florida blue crab,” said Ulrich, “it’s deceiving.”

When apprised on April 6 of the test results, Gardiner said, “I’ll own up to that. It’s swimming blue crab. Most of the time it comes from Indonesia or Vietnam. I guess we’ve been calling it that for so long, but it should say jumbo lump crab. It’s obviously an oversight on my part. I try not to be malicious or mislead people.”

A half-hour later, he emailed us a revised menu.

 Noble Crust in St. Petersburg showcases some of its purported farm purveyors on a chalkboard. (STEPHANIE HAYES | Times)

Noble Crust in St. Petersburg showcases some of its purported farm purveyors on a chalkboard. (STEPHANIE HAYES | Times)

Growing locally and sustainably with water conservation and zero-carbon footprint is nice if you can do it.

It’s also expensive, said Robert Tornello of 3 Boys Farm, a hydroponic outfit in Ruskin. Especially when you add strict food safety documentation, greenhouse infrastructure and trained labor costs of $12 to $16 per hour. It’s less than half that in places like Mexico.

“When a driver at $15 an hour has to do a three-hour round trip, plus fuel and overhead, to deliver three $30 cases of greens at 15 percent gross profit, you realize that the system is broken,” he said.

Rebecca Krassnoski of Nature Delivered has sold her naturally raised pork to restaurants like The Refinery and Pearl in the Grove. Here’s a little bit of her math:

Her cost to raise a pig to slaughter weight is $240 to $300, plus $50 to slaughter it and $50 to transport it. So, let’s say her total cost is $400. That whole pig, minus entrails and hair, will weigh 192 pounds. If she sells it at $3 per pound, that’s a sale price of $576.

“I make $200 if everything goes well,” she said. “That’s on a perfect day. On average, I’m lucky if I make $100 on a pig and maybe I raise 100 pigs in a year.”

Ten thousand dollars a year is not a living, she said, but “nobody wants to pay $6 per pound for pork.” Most restaurants can’t, or won’t, pay her what she needs to live.

“I can’t think of a time when my chops have been served at a restaurant on a daily basis,” she said. “I think a lot of times farmers with a good story are used as a billboard.”

And another thing. While it’s fun to nosh house-cured ham biscuits and sip small-batch bourbon in a dining room festooned with antique wheat scythes, for the people who actually grow the food, this isn’t reality.

Farms tend to be where farm-to-table restaurants aren’t, said Craig Rogers, shepherd-in-chief of Border Springs Farm in Virginia.

“The average farmer hasn’t been to a restaurant any fancier than Applebee’s,” he said.

 At Get Hooked in Hudson, the “Delicious Lobster Sensation” contains fish other than lobster. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

At Get Hooked in Hudson, the “Delicious Lobster Sensation” contains fish other than lobster. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Inside Edition correspondent Lisa Guerrero wore a fitted black blazer and stilettos when she busted with her camera crew into Get Hooked, a casual seafood restaurant in Hudson that on occasion hosts micro-championship little people wrestling.

Taking co-owner John Hill by surprise, she confronted him about his “Delicious Lobster Sensation,” part of a Feb. 8 segment about the frequent fraudulence of lobster dishes.

Although the restaurant has its own fishing boats, and Hill likes to say, “Our refrigerator is the Gulf of Mexico,” its lobster roll-like sandwich is made with a commercial product that contains cheaper fish such as whiting and pollock.

After the show aired, I followed up to see how the revelation had affected the restaurant.

“We’re selling more lobster rolls now than ever, and we’re serving the same product,” co-owner Michelle Bittaker said. “What the show forgot to tell you is that the sandwich is $9.95, with french fries and coleslaw. Nobody in America could serve a real Maine lobster roll for $9.95.”

They also offer a real Maine lobster roll on their specials board, she said, 6 ounces for what she calls a more realistic $24.95.

King & Prince’s Lobster Sensations product has a 12-month freezer life, a 60-day shelf life unopened and a 10-day shelf life opened.

“It’s like the cockroach,” said Michael Peel, longtime owner of the now defunct Crazy Conch Cafe, who worked around seafood for 34 years. “It will be here after a nuclear attack.”

In addition to flavor enhancers disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, the Sensation contains surimi, a fish paste that is flavored, frozen, extruded, dyed, rolled into ribbons and cut into chunks.

Surimi is one of the fastest-growing seafood products in North America. It is also, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, among the most frequent culprits in the state’s food misrepresentation complaints.

“If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, is it a duck?” said Peel. “Sometimes, but other times it could be surimi.”

 The Tampa Roll at Jackson's Bistro in Tampa advertises “Tempura fresh grouper,” but a DNA test showed that the fish is actually tilapia. (LARA CERRI | Times)

The Tampa Roll at Jackson's Bistro in Tampa advertises “Tempura fresh grouper,” but a DNA test showed that the fish is actually tilapia. (LARA CERRI | Times)

In 2006, the Tampa Bay Times exposed the frequent substitution of other fish species for grouper. Since then, dozens of news outlets have exposed spurious fish claims, yet the misrepresentations continue. In February, I had the grouper sushi roll at Jackson’s Bistro on Harbour Island tested by Ulrich at USF. It was tilapia.

Naturally raised and grass-fed beef are equally fraught with fraud, according to John Bormann, program sales manager for JBS, a leading processor of beef, pork and lamb.

On an average week, 530,000 head of cattle are processed in the United States, he said. Fewer than 12,000 of them are naturally raised and antibiotic free.

“Sysco might buy 4,000 pounds a week of all-natural beef. Do you think that will service all the people who are claiming to sell it?”

If you see all-natural steak for less than $20 on a menu, he said, beware. Most Americans prefer the mouthfeel of corn-fed beef, but words like “hormone-free” and “pasture-raised” taste so much better than “feedlot.”

“Folks think they need a story on almost everything on their menu,” he said.

Noble Crust in St. Petersburg lists Fat Beet and 3 Boys farms on its chalkboard. Tim Curci of Fat Beet said, “It’s a plan, not a farm,” which will eventually grow things for Noble Crust on 9 acres near Race Track Road in Tampa. But right now? Fat Beet supplies a tiny fraction of the restaurant’s herbs. And 3 Boys’ Tornello said he hasn’t sold to Noble Crust since the end of last year.

“That chalkboard needs to be updated,” Noble Crust co-owner T.J. Thielbar said. “I do agree, it’s a misrepresentation.”

Not so bad when compared to Marchand’s at the Vinoy RenaissanceSt. Petersburg, which listed 3 Boys for a year past their last purchase, until Tornello said he wrote a letter asking them to remove it, which they did. Vinoy chef Mark Heimann confirmed this.

The menu at St. Petersburg’s Stillwaters Tavern touts: locally produced dairy, vegetables, grains, seafood and shellfish … we work with local artisans, farmers and foragers to serve the best of each season.

Grains? Maybe, if grits from Tallahassee made with corn from Kentucky are “local.”

Mistakes happen. On April 6, the bar menu at The Canopy at The Birchwood in St. Petersburg listed Faithful Farms as a provider of lettuces. The farm went out of business last summer. When asked about it, chef Jason Cline said, “I forgot that was on the menu. I’m totally embarrassed. I’m literally taking it off the menu right now. Within the hour.”

And then there’s this guy.

 Antonino Casamento brings his buffalo off the field for milking in September 2012. (Photo by TED MCLAREN)

Antonino Casamento brings his buffalo off the field for milking in September 2012. (Photo by TED MCLAREN)

Antonino Casmento started with eight Mediterranean water buffalo a few years ago, he said, his herd growing to more than 30.

Not to be confused with American bison, these curvy-horned creatures are milked from Rome to Salerno, their milk turned into mozzarella and other prized Italian cheeses that often command double the price of cow’s milk cheeses. Richer and more flavorful, buffalo milk is also lower in cholesterol and higher in protein and calcium.

These days, Casamento is selling between 10 and 15 varieties of what he said are his own buffalo milk cheeses out of the tiny Mozzarella Bar he runs as a restaurant in Tampa. State officials said it is not permitted to sell wine, which it does.

While you eat your cheese at up to $26 per pound, he will show you his “bible,” a photo album of his water buffalo.

It appears his bible is a fairy tale.

While he once sold his cheeses at St. Petersburg’s Saturday Morning Market and other outdoor stands, questions arose that he was substituting cow’s milk from Dakin Dairy in Myakka. Jerry Dakin confirmed he was selling milk to Casamento, but said Casamento hasn’t bought any in the past year.

In January 2015, Casamento was accused of animal cruelty over a calf in Plant City found tied to a post too tightly, with an eye injury and a rope embedded in the muscle tissue of its neck. In February 2015 he signed a settlement with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office relinquishing ownership of the calf and agreeing to have Brandon veterinarian Mark Mayo inspect his herd.

“He really did love on 'em,” Mayo said of his visit. “They were a little down on weight. I wouldn’t say it was a severe animal cruelty case. People have good intentions and sometimes things don’t go well.

“He was talking about selling his herd.”

According to EcoFarm’s Jon Butts, Casamento sold his water buffalo about a year ago, many for their meat. Butts took two males and a female at his Plant City farm, but said Casamento has not been buying their milk.

Casamento said he sold some buffalo, but keeps other animals with a farmer named “Satia” in Myakka. He couldn’t tell me how many buffalo Satia has, nor Satia’s last name, address or phone number.

Repeated calls went unanswered until I received this text: Dear Laura, we’re flattered that you’d like to write about us, as for your inquiry as to our supplier list, we highly respect our supplier’s privacy; our focus has shifted to MB our Italian bistro, and as a restaurateur in a highly competitive market wish to keep them as part of our coveted Italian family recipes.

I told him we couldn’t find anyone in Myakka who knew about a herd of water buffalo and asked if he was declining to reveal their whereabouts.

His answer: You’re welcome. One day I’d be happy to chat with you in front of a cup of coffee… or wine, if you’d like.

 Chef Greg Seymour at Pizzeria Gregario sources local products and makes many items from scratch. The Lombardy pizza features local buffalo milk and fontina cheeses with house-cured bresaola (beef), pickled Florida onions, garlic and arugula. (JIM DAMASKE | Times)

Chef Greg Seymour at Pizzeria Gregario sources local products and makes many items from scratch. The Lombardy pizza features local buffalo milk and fontina cheeses with house-cured bresaola (beef), pickled Florida onions, garlic and arugula. (JIM DAMASKE | Times)

There are restauranteurs selling precisely what they say they are. But the list makes for strange bedfellows.

Greg Seymour owns Pizzeria Gregario in Safety Harbor. He buys whole pigs from EcoFarm and makes his own bacon, tasso and fennel sausage. He makes his own mozzarella and yogurt from local milk and sources produce only from local farms that have organic certification or use organic practices. It’s all listed on a crowded chalkboard. The farmers say he’s the real deal. This is a guy who hasn’t eaten asparagus for years because it doesn’t grow here.

“I choose to do it because it’s what I think is right,” he said. “And I’m just dogmatic in the way I do things.”

But that has got to be expensive.

“It’s brutally expensive, so it’s challenging because consumers are used to inexpensive food,” he said. “It’s hard for them to compare apples to oranges. I have low overhead and I don’t mind working 80 hours a week. But I’m a pizzeria, right? So I can’t charge for a high food cost.”

A 12-inch pie with housemade fennel sausage and pickled banana peppers: $17.

Ferrell Alvarez and Ty Rodriguez at Rooster & the Till in Seminole Heights, although thoroughly sick of the term “farm to table,” source locally for much of their food. Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm in Tampa grows specifically for Rooster, but has been misrepresented by other restaurants.

The first tipoff on a menu? Constancy.

“The only thing we can grow year-round is lettuce,” said Urban Oasis co-owner Cathy Hume. “If they have collard greens on the menu in June, something is wrong.”

Some restaurants have their own farms. Bern’s Steak House’s menu ends with a section about its organic farm: Depending on the seasons and the weather, we try to serve what we grow on our farm daily to our customers.

In 2012, the Times reported that Bern’s Steak House was overreaching on organic claims, getting most produce from conventional suppliers. On a visit to the relocated farm in February (Bern Laxer’s original farm is now soccer fields and a Wawa), there was significantly more produce growing. Bern’s declined to comment for this story.

There are also restaurants that make no claims at all.

Jeannie Pierola doesn’t shy away from lavish descriptions at her Edison: food+drink lab in Tampa. Red snapper a la plancha with avocado coconut grits, organic baby spinach, merguez marmalade, avocado coconut chutney and mango harissa puree. Research shows people will pay more when descriptions are longer.

But Pierola, who did a James Beard House dinner in 2015 celebrating Florida’s indigenous foods, scarcely mentions provenance.

“I assume my guests know I am always pursuing the best product,” she said.

Cafe Ponte chef-owner Chris Ponte deals with more than 30 vendors for his 14-year-old Clearwater restaurant. He doesn’t list any small farms.

“It’s too difficult to be true farm to table,” he said. “It would be awesome if you could one-stop shop.”

It’s difficult, but you sort of can. There are people like Emily Rankin of Local Roots and John Matthews of Suncoast Food Alliance, a new breed of middlemen connecting chefs to farmers. Rankin helps deliver the food of about 60 producers a year to around 100 restaurants. But the average restaurant works with 300 ingredients. She said her supply can only cover a small portion of any menu.

How much is enough, in good faith, to make farm-to-table claims?

 Co-owner and chef Greg Baker shucks corn at the Refinery in Seminole Heights in 2010. (STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times file)

Co-owner and chef Greg Baker shucks corn at the Refinery in Seminole Heights in 2010. (STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times file)

The owners of the Refinery are widely known champions of local. They choose their words carefully.

“Have you ever noticed we have never said we are a farm-to-fork restaurant?” asked Michelle Baker, co-owner of the Tampa restaurant with her husband, Greg. “We’ve simply stated that we buy as much as we can… We’ve fought and forged these farm relationships because it’s just the right thing to do.”

The James Beard Foundation named The Refinery a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2011 and named Greg Baker a semifinalist for Best Chef South for the past five years. Beyond Bern’s, it may be the Tampa Bay restaurant best known nationally.

The Refinery’s website reads: If it wasn’t grown in Florida or produced using ethically sound methods, you probably won’t find it here.

Not everything has gone as planned.

“They have a solid business model for sourcing produce, but it’s shakier for protein,” said Mike Peters, who was purchasing manager when the Bakers’ second restaurant, Fodder & Shine, debuted at the end of 2014. A diligent re-creation of early Florida Cracker food, it came complete with hardtack and beef from Cracker cattle.

“I wound up losing so much money, I couldn’t justify it,” Greg Baker said. “We abandoned the whole Cracker idea and began retooling and examining what our customers wanted. They didn’t care about heritage breeds, so we changed our mission.”

Considering the fundamentals you have to have (carrots, onions, celery, potatoes, garlic, lemons), Greg Baker said, The Refinery uses 70 to 90 percent local produce, depending on the season. He uses all Florida fish and as much local meat as the market will bear.

“There is a small percentage of people willing to pay for a Pasture Prime pork chop, (which) would be more than $40,” said Michelle Baker.

But at Fodder 2.0?

“Upon reboot of the concept, we immediately stopped claiming to use local anything,” said Greg Baker. “The market demanded different things, at a much lower price point, and one can starve on one’s principles.”

 John Matthews, left, owns Suncoast Food Alliance, which provides local farm goods to chefs like Jason Cline, right, of The Birchwood in St. Petersburg. (LARA CERRI | Times)

John Matthews, left, owns Suncoast Food Alliance, which provides local farm goods to chefs like Jason Cline, right, of The Birchwood in St. Petersburg. (LARA CERRI | Times)

We're not helpless. Increasingly, there are ways for consumers to track where food comes from. There’s foodwaze.com, which verifies sustainable food businesses. There’s the chef who is also a Stetson University math professor developing a mathematical model to trace food.

“I’m not trying to re-enact a scene from Portlandia,” said Hari Pulapaka, chef-owner of the award-winning farm-to-table Cress in DeLand. “But consumers have to take ownership.”

And there’s an ingenious fish tracing program from Katie Sosa at Sammy’s Seafood in St. Petersburg. Sammy’s records the boat, captain and catch date. Customers can look it all up tableside on their phones.

While Sosa works with up to 200 restaurants, only a handful of folks like Steve Westphal of St. Petersburg’s Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach, and Benito D’Azzo, the chef at Tampa’s David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, use her tool.

Why? Some customers might not like what they read: This fresh fish was caught more than a week ago? Complicated truths are the reality of the entire food industry.

There’s always a ragged edge to innovation, that famous farmer Joel Salatin said. The only path to greater transparency in our food system is consumer activism.

Ask questions. Be prepared for the answers.

“When it comes to something as intimate and personal as our bodies’ fuel,” Salatin said, “I beg people to be as discerning as they are about the Kardashians.”

Since the first Boca debuted in 2012, the parent group rolled out another in Winter Park and a third in Riverview. Two more are set to open.

As of April 5, the website listed vendors King Family Farm and C&D Fruit & Vegetable Company, both in Bradenton. King Family has, for months, been listed as “permanently closed” on Facebook, its phone disconnected. Leanne O’Brien of C&D said they do not sell anything to Boca.

The Riverview chalkboard recently listed Seminole Pride beef and Long & Scott Farms, neither of which are current vendors. While Boca’s Tampa chef, Sandy DeBenedietto, said they buy their Florida pink shrimp through distributor Halperns’ Steak & Gary’s Seafood in Orlando, the distributor has no record of pink shrimp purchases this year.

And on that Tampa chalkboard, Captain Kirk Morgan was said to supply red snapper and grouper.

Morgan is not licensed to sell direct to restaurants, and said he has never sold Boca any fish. Furthermore, he doesn’t catch red snapper or grouper. He catches sheepshead, mullet and jacks.

When confronted, Boca’s executive chef Matt Mangone first said he had met Morgan at I.C. Sharks market in St. Petersburg, and had purchased from him a couple times.

When told the angler said otherwise, Mangone said, “Well, we bought it through a friend of his.”

Morgan had no knowledge of that. Why was his name on the chalkboard?

Mangone uttered a familiar reply.

“I guess the board needs to be updated.”

Tampa Bay Farmers Markets Are Lacking in Just One Thing: Local Farmers

 Gary Parke of Parke Family Hydro Farms sells fruits and vegetables at area markets. He claims to grow them all on his 2-acre farm in Dover. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Gary Parke of Parke Family Hydro Farms sells fruits and vegetables at area markets. He claims to grow them all on his 2-acre farm in Dover. (LARA CERRI | Times)

On this windy day, the vendors’ tents stretch down Madeira Way, some skittering east as if spooked. Gary Parke is a fixture here, his white awning peaked like a circus big top.

Local Fresh Picked Produce, his sign reads. Pesticide Free.

He’s heavy on strawberries this time of year, but on this day in February at the Mid-Week Madeira Beach Open Air Market, he also has bins of peppers, squashes and grape tomatoes. Tucked into the produce is a Sharpie-lettered scrap of paper: Yes! I’m the farmer who grew it.

I talk to him four different times at four different markets. His story is always the same.

His family runs Parkesdale Farms and has farmed 300 acres for three generations in Plant City. He broke off 13 years ago and did his own thing, called Parke Family Hydro Farms.

He has 2 acres of hydroponics on Tanner Road in Dover, he says. In addition to markets in Gulfport, Ybor City, South Tampa and Wiregrass, he is a vendor at one in Kissimmee and another near Orlando.

“I grow 15 different items,” he says. “Everything you’re looking at comes from the farm.”

The address is on his Facebook page. I drive there, and I do find 2 acres of five-tier hydroponic stackers.

They lean crazily, bleached by the sun, tufts of 4-foot weeds bristling between long abandoned rows.

 The posted location of Parke Family Hydro Farms on Tanner Road in Dover. (LARA CERRI | Times)

The posted location of Parke Family Hydro Farms on Tanner Road in Dover. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Most of us have not planted seeds and watched them germinate. We have not amended soil with loamy compost and mopped our brows under the shade of an orchard in bloom. We are disconnected from our food.

Around the country, farmers markets have become ritual weekly opportunities for us to connect in some small way. In Tampa Bay, people park dog strollers to browse beeswax candles and wait for grilled cheeses while listening to one-man bands Rolodexing the Buffett oeuvre.

They fill string bags with produce. And few people seem to know that there are nearly no farmers. That this stuff came from Mexico, Honduras, Canada. That your grocer has already passed it over.

Over several weeks, I visited Tampa Bay’s outdoor markets. At a dozen different markets, I counted 346 discrete vendors, many of whom sell at multiple markets. Of that number, only 16 sold their own produce, honey, eggs, meat or dairy. Plenty of wind chimes and hot sauces, but less than 5 percent represented Florida farmers growing their own food.

Many vendors at the outdoor markets are not growers but resellers, and there’s a reason for that. Publix, one of the 10 largest-volume supermarket chains in the country and the largest in Florida, is based in Lakeland.

“When produce is shipped in, they want it to get to Lakeland so Publix will choose it,” said Cathy Hume, co-owner of Urban Oasis, a hydroponic farm in Tampa. The selection process can make for a lot of leftovers.

“What Publix doesn’t want is what, actually, people are buying,” she said. “It’s Publix rejects.”

 Small Town Farms owner Page Wyffels sells produce at the Fresh Market at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Small Town Farms owner Page Wyffels sells produce at the Fresh Market at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel. (LARA CERRI | Times)

It's raining steadily, but 83 vendors have set up booths at the Fresh Market at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel in February.

There are two Florida honey guys, a live herb and a kumquat vendor, two produce farmers and Peaceful Pastures Farm, pasture-raised meat and eggs from Zephyrhills. The largest category is prepared food (31 vendors). I splash past Dog Jerky Flea Treats and the King’s Nuts and slip under the canopy at Lee Farms.

I ask a young woman if the produce is from her farm. She says yes. I ask if it is all from her farm. She says no, they buy from neighboring farms. When I notice asparagus and apples, which generally don’t grow in Florida, I ask if it is resold produce from a broader radius. She says yes. And then I ask, specifically, which items are grown on Lee Farms.

Her answer: “We are currently replanting.”

In 40 seconds, Lee Farms went from growing everything to nothing.

I call the farmer, Christina Lee, whose Lee Farms is in Webster, and tell her about my experience. A lot of her crops were destroyed because it was a late winter, she says. She admits to visiting the wholesale market and selling Caribbean fruit and asparagus from Peru.

Does she say all produce in their booth is their own?

“In passing conversation, we say yes. If people stop and ask if it’s ours, we say yes, it’s ours, because most people don’t have knowledge about what is grown in Florida.”

 The Plant City Farm and Flea Market is a vast resource for resellers. They claim 90 percent of the produce, which comes from around the world, is sold to restaurants, grocery stores and roadside fruit and vegetable dealers. (LARA CERRI | Times)

The Plant City Farm and Flea Market is a vast resource for resellers. They claim 90 percent of the produce, which comes from around the world, is sold to restaurants, grocery stores and roadside fruit and vegetable dealers. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Here's where your “local” produce may have actually been:

After a field has been commercially harvested, people called “gleaners” offer a farmer a flat fee to scoop up the scraps.

Folks called “pinhookers” buy up the excess at wholesale markets, stuff deemed not desirable enough to get shipped around the country to big supermarkets.

So while that tomato still looks pretty good, it may have been languishing in the field. Or it might have been picked and packed in Sinaloa, Mexico, then trucked into the United States at Nogales, Ariz., where, at an operation like Farmer’s Best International, it may have been loaded onto another truck bound for one of the big produce markets in Atlanta or Immokalee.

From there, it may have gotten on a different truck, headed to the warehouse of another middleman like Grimaldo Farm Fresh Produce, which may have then trucked it to the Plant City Farm & Flea Market.

At that point, it may have awaited purchase by someone like Reina Andujar, who sells it from a booth at the Haines City Flea Market. It may have gone to a small grocery store. It may have gone to a restaurant or restaurant supplier. Or it may have gone to a vendor at one of the Tampa Bay outdoor markets. The “farmers” markets.

While the USDA has strict criteria for using the term organic, there are no definitions for terms like “local,” “natural” or “sustainable.”

The Florida Right to Farm Act and Florida’s cottage food laws allow business owners with sales less than $15,000 a year to sell direct to consumers without any licensing, permits or facility inspections. All of this opens up a range of scot-free opportunities for those inclined to take short cuts or bend the truth.

“After about 2010, the popularity of the farmers markets grew so fast that the standards fell behind,”

 said T.A. Wyner, who has run multiple markets and served on the board of the Florida Association of Community Farmers Markets for years. “Municipalities just wanted to have a market of their own.”

That tomato from Sinaloa logged a lot of miles, miles that take a toll on freshness. But while grocery stores are required to indicate the country of origin for produce, meats and fish, vendors at outdoor markets don’t have to.

They can just peel off the stickers.

 Produce at the Small Town Farms booth at the Shops at Wiregrass. Page Wyffels runs Small Town Farms, a vendor at a number of markets. (LAURA REILEY | Times)

Produce at the Small Town Farms booth at the Shops at Wiregrass. Page Wyffels runs Small Town Farms, a vendor at a number of markets. (LAURA REILEY | Times)

Every Thursday morning for more than 10 years, the city of Safety Harbor has hung signs calling motorists’ attention to its weekly farmers market.

At the gazebo at the heart of downtown flies a white and red banner emblazoned with the words “Farmers Market,” and a picture of a basket of produce.

On Feb. 11, there were no farmers. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything: a hot dog vendor, two jewelers and Kilpatrick Produce, a reseller.

Even the market manager thought the sign was a misnomer.

“I do, that’s my opinion,” said Danny France, who has run the market for two years. “I came from Ohio, and the markets we had up there were nothing but produce. But the city of Safety Harbor runs this.”

City Manager Matthew Spoor saw things differently.

“No, it doesn’t seem like a misrepresentation,” he said. “The term ‘farmers market’ is used very loosely by every city. No one has complained about that. At one time, there were farmers.”

But at the March 7 city commission meeting, commissioners voted to turn the market over to the Merchants of Safety Harbor.

And on April 3, it debuted with a new name: Market on Main Street.

 Gary Parke is a vendor at six markets, including the Mid Week Madeira Beach Open Air Market, shown here. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Gary Parke is a vendor at six markets, including the Mid Week Madeira Beach Open Air Market, shown here. (LARA CERRI | Times)

“Oh, that's the experimental plot,” Gary Parke says when I call after visiting his defunct farm.

He doesn’t give the location of his real farm, he says, because he lost $25,000 from theft. He says he moved it down the road on Tanner, behind a fence.

“I haven’t opened it up to people or journalists and I haven’t had so much as a shovel stolen,” he says.

I tell him we won’t steal his shovels. I tell him we won’t reveal the whereabouts of his real farm. He declines to say where it is.

Though he purports to grow strawberries, Sue Harrell from the Florida Strawberry Growers Association doesn’t know anything about Gary Parke.

Matt Parke, Gary’s nephew, runs Parkesdale.

“We have nothing to do with Gary Parke, other than that he’s my uncle,” Matt Parke says. “We don’t sell to him.”

I tell him his uncle’s farm is derelict and that Gary Parke said there was another farm.

“If that’s what he says. You should probably talk with Gary.”

I drive Tanner Road, going down side roads and dirt driveways, peering behind every fence. I check Google Earth, visit every address that has been in Parke’s name. I ask neighbors and Plant City businesses about a hydroponic farm. They all know the defunct one, but no other.

At Parke’s home, his white truck is flanked by stacks of boxes with the markings of different produce companies.

 Gary Parke’s produce stand at the Mid-Week Madeira Beach Open Air Market. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Gary Parke’s produce stand at the Mid-Week Madeira Beach Open Air Market. (LARA CERRI | Times)

So, if Gary Parke is not a farmer, he’s a reseller. If he is a reseller, it means his claims of “local,” “fresh picked” and “pesticide free” should be questioned. And if he is a reseller, it means the managers of markets where he vends have failed to vet his claims, even minimally.

In fact, Parke was thrown out of the Sarasota Farmers Market in 2013 for misrepresentation.

“Parke Hydro did a presentation and got approved to vend at the market,” said executive director Phil Pagano. “And then they started promoting themselves as all organic.

“That flipped a switch for me,” Pagano said. “We’re protective of the 'o’ word. I got suspicious, so I drove up there. This was at a time of year where things should be growing. There was nothing growing and there were a bunch of boxes from distributors. I immediately told him not to come back.”

Let’s go back to that Mid-Week Madeira Beach Open Air Market for a minute.

With the tagline: “Local produce, growers, specialty and gourmet foods, fine arts and crafts, community connections,” there were 48 vendors.

If we reclassify Gary Parke as a reseller, that means there were two produce resellers, nine jewelers and eight craft vendors. Shamrock Shine wipers competed with Spiff Cloth for dominance in the dusting space; Niconi’s Treasures pet clothing duked it out with dietary supplements for dogs.

But if we don’t count Gary Parke, there were exactly zero farmers at the market.

 The sign for the Tampa Downtown Market at Lykes Gaslight Square advertises a farmers market, but offers the wares of just a couple farmers. (LAURA REILEY | Times)

The sign for the Tampa Downtown Market at Lykes Gaslight Square advertises a farmers market, but offers the wares of just a couple farmers. (LAURA REILEY | Times)

A couple of blocks from the Tampa Museum of Art and the city’s bustling Riverwalk, a sandwich board sits near the police station: Lykes Gaslight Square Thursdays Farmer’s Market. ... The best of what’s around, right downtown.

Georgea Snyder used to run farmers markets in Brooklyn and on the Upper West Side in New York. In September, she took over as manager of Tampa’s downtown market on Thursday afternoons.

At first, she offered a glossy sales pitch for the market, a project of the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

“It’s a producer-only market,” she said. “Our produce people are actual farmers, not bringing it in. This is what I feel is the best part of the market — finding out where your food is coming from.”

When I told her I disagreed, and that many of her vendors are resellers, and many of the products are about as far from local as you can get (Ugandan vanilla beans, Greek imports, Wisconsin cheeses), she capitulated.

Visitors are just looking for cheap food, she said, not quality. And that’s where the resellers come in.

“I don’t want to see something negative written about a project I’m working on,” she said. “However, I’m glad to see someone looking at this. I wish I had a solution. On the market manager’s part, it should be about being more thorough about checking up on the sellers, being more attentive to what they’re saying. Because ultimately, we’re responsible for what they’re saying.”

As market manager, then, why isn’t she vetting her vendors?

“Verifying is a big job,” she said. “I have to work other jobs as well. I just don’t make enough money to vet vendors, unfortunately. As it stands, the market may not happen next year.”

 Leonard and Arlene Horak run Circle 6 Farm & Ranch in Duette, with about 500 laying hens. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Leonard and Arlene Horak run Circle 6 Farm & Ranch in Duette, with about 500 laying hens. (LARA CERRI | Times)

No doubt, vetting takes effort. But how much?

I watch Leonard Horak sell out of 85 dozen eggs at the Gulfport market, 50 dozen at the Friday Dunedin market and 70 dozen in Dunedin the following Saturday.

That’s a lot of eggs. A suspiciously lot of eggs. I head out for Horak’s Circle 6 Farm & Ranch in Duette. It’s a long, confusing drive. I ask directions to Circle 6 from an older woman in a pickup.

She is Circle 6. Arlene Horak lets me in. I meet her roughly 500 pasture-raised laying hens, many molting and sending up eddies of feathers as they amble across the short spring grass. Her meat chickens, kept in a nearby coop, are about 6 pounds when the Horaks butcher and defeather them.

Arlene Horak rounds up about 375 eggs a day, fewer when the birds are molting. She has heard of market vendors rubbing the Eggland’s Best “EB” stamp off the delicate orbs and selling them as their own.

Eggland’s Best aren’t cheap: A dozen cage-free AA large brown eggs right now at Publix in St. Petersburg runs $3.89. “Farm fresh eggs” at the outdoor markets? Often more than double that. Circle 6 charges $5 per dozen.

“In our hearts, we know where our chickens come from,” Arlene says while petting a laying hen who is a chronic victim of chicken bullying. “I wish people could see our hearts.”

In five hours, I have confirmed Circle 6 is legit.

 David Goosey farms 1 acre at his Abundant Life Natural Gardens in Plant City. He runs a CSA (community supported agriculture club) and sells at the downtown Tampa market. (LARA CERRI | Times)

David Goosey farms 1 acre at his Abundant Life Natural Gardens in Plant City. He runs a CSA (community supported agriculture club) and sells at the downtown Tampa market. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Ten thousand visitors regularly crowd the Al Lang Stadium parking lot to shop St. Petersburg’s Saturday Morning Market, the largest market in the Southeast according to Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

Gail Eggeman started it with three other women in 1996. The market moved around a bit and quit operation the next year. It started again in 2002, and by 2006 had really exploded.

At first, she said, her attitude was “as long as there are vegetables, it’s a farmers market.” They took all comers without asking too many questions. Then, she discovered one of her hydroponic farmers was a reseller, and another vendor who claimed to be organic was repackaging everything, a heap of plastic clamshells from conventional Michigan mushrooms under her table.

She started vetting. These days, real farmers are in one area, resellers in another, all marked as such. She has kicked people out for misrepresentation and limits resellers.

“You’re taking business away from farmers if you have resellers,” she said. “Resellers will sell $800 of produce and farmers will sell maybe $400 or $500.”

You could argue it’s a free market. If Kilpatrick Produce, one of the few resellers to make no farming claims, has the most vigorous stall at the markets, fine. If people are clamoring for Honduran melons, Chilean plums and Guatemalan spaghetti squash, so be it.

But the area’s small farmers, many wobbly novices, are imperiled. David Goosey’s Abundant Life Natural Gardens in Plant City, which farms 1 acre with organic practices, sells at the downtown Tampa market, his tiny table of carrots and greens often passed over in favor of Gary Parke’s more abundant display. Jonathan DeLura owns Live Oaks Organics in Brooksville and sells at three markets. He earns $300 or $400 per market and lives in a travel trailer.

“It’s been frustrating to see people flock to those stands,” he said of resellers.

Workers at Aurora Fresh Produce at the Corey Avenue market in St. Pete Beach will tell you their wares are from Immokalee, but if you press the matter they’ll admit that nearly all fruit is from other countries. The woman at Tungett Produce and Citrus represents herself as a farmer, but ask a few questions and she reframes herself as a reseller selling produce from “all local farmers and growers.”

And then there’s Small Town Farms. At the North Tampa Market, Page Wyffels said he was the farmer. He patted the carrots as one would the flanks of prize-winning race horses. At another market, he spoke of driving to North Carolina to source. And at another, his produce was freckled with South America stickers. He admitted to buying from Restaurant Depot or the wholesale market on Hillsborough.

How is anyone supposed to know where his stuff is from?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “It’s about honesty, I guess. It’s not like buying a car with a serial number. You don’t really know. Maybe one day I’ll be big enough to label. But I prefer not to.”

 Locale Market in St. Petersburg set out to "scour the streets of St. Pete, the waters of Tampa Bay and the farms of Florida." (LARA CERRI | Times)

Locale Market in St. Petersburg set out to "scour the streets of St. Pete, the waters of Tampa Bay and the farms of Florida." (LARA CERRI | Times)

The dry-aged beef case was lined with pink Himalayan salt slabs. There was a walk-in wine cooler, a “jerky program” and a pastamaker that cost more than a Steinway baby grand.

When Locale Market debuted in December 2014 in St. Petersburg’s new Sundial center, diners and shoppers were agog: 11 full kitchens under the thumb of celebrity chef owners Michael Mina and Don Pintabona.

Best of all, it was the first committed attempt to showcase all the good stuff from this part of Florida.

The website read: Locale Market set its mission to scour the streets of St. Pete, the waters of Tampa Bay and the farms of Florida for the very best and freshest in homegrown products.

The mission statement was in the name itself.

In large measure, Locale and its second-level FarmTable Kitchen restaurant have made good. Locale has functioned like an incubator, helping fledgling local entrepreneurs like King State Coffee, Bloom Chocolates and Kairos Ceramics. And much of Locale’s seafood is harvested within sight of the Sunshine Skyway.

But the produce section is a different story.

Nearly all of the produce was organic on a recent visit, but only about 10 percent was from Florida. There were Mexican tomatoes, Peruvian grapes, boxed greens from California, peppers from Mexico, and this was at the peak of Florida’s growing season. There were four local farms’ names on chalkboards, but produce manager Scot Schuette said they had produce from only two of these.

This has been the market’s biggest conundrum, according to Michael Cohen, vice president of operations. Locale’s commitment is to organic and/or local food not sprayed with chemicals.

“Clearly there are lots of conventional farms here, but we’re not going to sell stuff that’s been sprayed with pesticides,” he said.

When the market started, it used hydroponic produce from Faithful Farms in St. Petersburg, which went out of business last summer. Locale used 3 Boys Farm in Ruskin, currently replanting with different crops, and it used Gamble Creek Farm in Parrish. Gamble Creek owner Ed Chiles said he would love to supply Locale, but order sizes were too small to justify delivery costs.

Locale’s buyers have scoured the area for local farms, Cohen said, and have been told by many that crops are already spoken for. Listening to Cohen, it sounds like they’ve exhausted the possibilities.

But maybe not.

Through her company Local Roots, Emily Rankin serves as middleman, delivering foods from local farms to restaurants. She said she reached out to Locale some months ago and popped in to discuss options, but has not yet heard back.

“It would be a good fit for us,” she said.

Eva Worden from Worden Farm in Punta Gorda said Locale approached her, but said there has not been any followup yet. That said, she understands it’s tough for the market.

“They created their concept before understanding the landscape of local farm product availability,” she said.

Upstairs at Locale, on the way to the bathrooms, there’s a long wall of gorgeous black and white photos of Florida farmers and producers. Many are folks Locale no longer works with, like Pam Lunn, the Tampa goat cheese producer they’ve dropped in favor of more established California products.

“We’re not trying to misrepresent with those photos,” said Cohen. “It’s decor and it’s going to get changed out.”

 The Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market touts local produce up high but has nearly none.

The Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market touts local produce up high but has nearly none.

The ratio of local farmers to handicrafts at outdoor markets is low across the board, from Gulfport to Hyde Park Village.

“In a perfect world, I’d like 80 percent farmers and artisanal foods,” said Laura Garrison, who manages markets in Madeira Beach and Indian Rocks. “I have 87 jewelry vendor applications on my desk.”

The market manager’s job is to draw the biggest crowds. It’s like planning a party. Maybe having a huge reseller, with its cornucopia of 10 varieties of apples, is the equivalent of having a bounce house. But as any parent knows, a bounce house comes with risks.

If that reseller is not marked as such, and customers think they’re buying local, organic, sustainable,

 it erodes trust and muddies our understanding of what grows here when. And it might keep the real farmers from showing up.

We have farms to the north and south of us. The areas with farms have their own outdoor markets. Why would a farmer drive here from Manatee County to stand in the hot sun in Wesley Chapel for five hours? And for farmers who make their money selling directly to stores or restaurants, or at their own on-site farm stands, markets might not make business sense.

Despite the inconvenient facts, people want local.

Over the past three years, Garrison has seen a change in customers’ interest in the provenance of food. They started asking questions.

“It was like watching a storm gather,” she said.

It seems then, it would behoove the market managers to give the people what they want, to vet the claims of the farmers who do come, like Gary Parke and Christina Lee.

Tiffany Ferrecchia manages the Seminole Heights, Wiregrass, Hyde Park, Corey Avenue, Dunedin and North Tampa markets. She struggles to get out from behind her desk and forge those relationships, she said. And for Garrison, market days start at 4 a.m. and end at midnight. The rest of the time she’s a vendor herself, selling vegan food at markets.

When I told them I’d been to visit Parke’s farm and had found only derelict hydroponic stackers, they each seemed more disappointed than surprised.

Eight days after I met with Ferrecchia in February, a news release arrived at the Times and other media outlets. In it, Ferrecchia outlined reasons it’s hard to get local produce. She promised greater transparency about which vendors are farmers, resellers, GMO-free or organic.

We have worked to create a guide that will assist you in making the right choices for you and your family when shopping at the markets we operate.

 Illene Sofranko started the Urban Canning Company out of her kitchen. Using local ingredients, she cans jams, pickled vegetables and mustards in St. Petersburg to sell at outdoor markets and retailers. (LARA CERRI | Times)

Illene Sofranko started the Urban Canning Company out of her kitchen. Using local ingredients, she cans jams, pickled vegetables and mustards in St. Petersburg to sell at outdoor markets and retailers. (LARA CERRI | Times)

By now, we're suspicious of that tomato. But surely the lady making jam and the guy hawking hot sauce are as they seem.

Naturally, it’s not so simple.

Many companies that claim to be local and homemade are actually using something called co-packers. Essentially contract manufacturers, these are gargantuan factories, often in other parts of the country, where foods are produced in mass quantity.

So, a sauce company may technically have a local address. But the secret family recipe is produced in a far-off factory, and not with local ingredients.

Illene Sofranko, whose Urban Canning Company produces jams, pickles and such in St. Petersburg, competes with people who have taken this route. She sells her products at Locale, as well as at the Saturday Morning Market and the St. Pete Indie Market.

“Honey, salsa, barbecue sauce, spaghetti sauce, beef jerky,” she said. “It’s happening at all the outdoor markets.”

You have to read the fine print.

According to the FDA, food labels must list the name and address of the manufacturer, packer or distributor. But don’t feel bad if these details have escaped you. It happens to the best of us.

Sure enough, when you squint: While Eileen O’Hara’s Brimstone Originals is in Largo and she started in her own kitchen, her pepper jellies are now manufactured at a co-packer in southeast Georgia, where a minimum order is 400 cases.

Joy’s International Foods in Melbourne vends at 40 outdoor markets a week around the state. They offer 30 products — dips, marinades, pasta and a line of garlic sauces. Labels are festooned with the Fresh from Florida logo, a state-sponsored program indicating a product is Florida-made with Florida ingredients.

The program’s guidelines call for 50 percent of ingredients to be from Florida. A spokeswoman for Secretary of Agriculture Adam Putnam said plans are in the works to ratchet up that number.

Owner Jean Najjar said the tomatoes in his tomato sauces are from California or Italy. And his Garlic Joy sauces? The garlic is from New York or California, sometimes Mexico.

 With an array of fruits and vegetables, Forbes Road Produce on Branch Forbes Road in Plant City has long been a stop for folks traversing I-4. (LAURA REILEY | Times)

With an array of fruits and vegetables, Forbes Road Produce on Branch Forbes Road in Plant City has long been a stop for folks traversing I-4. (LAURA REILEY | Times)

Back away. Leave the farm-to-table restaurant, the gourmet grocer, the bustling farmers market with its Enchanted Sunshine Eucalyptus Oil and R. Justy Woodcrafts toaster tongs. Get on the road, go somewhere remote. Take your kid to college. Bring the family to Disney World.

Head down I-4, east of the Airstream Ranch and catty-corner from Quality Septic. Pass the Tyrannosaurus rex at the entrance to Dinosaur World. There, you find Forbes Road Produce, the gravel parking lot edged with hand-lettered signs: Plant City strawberries, $4.99 for a half flat. Limes, 6 for $1. Raw honey, illustrated by an entomologically incorrect bumblebee.

They’re not making any bold farming claims. But, as folksy as the proverbial Bubba’s Hot Boiled P-Nut stand, it’s got to be the real deal, right?

Maybe you stop. Debra and Keith Curtis have.

They’ve come from Zephyrhills looking for cacti, drawn by the market’s plants. They frequent Forbes in the spring when they believe the produce is more local.

“When we lived in Michigan, we tried to support small local businesses,” Debra Curtis says. “We’ve been in Florida for 10 years and we’ve always tried to buy local.”

They often buy strawberries and tomatoes, onions and summer squash. They try not to buy much from major grocery stores.

I can’t escape it. Like when you buy a new Accord, you see Hondas everywhere. As the Curtises pay for their cacti, I stroll the aisles and peer into the reach-in coolers.

Stickers and boxes.

Kiwis from Italy.

Plantains from Nicaragua.

Asparagus from Mexico.

Cauliflower from California.

Peppers from El Salvador.

Acorn squash from Honduras.

Plums from Chile.

The Futurist: This Spaceship Earth

Earth Lights from Space

I have often been asked how I became a futurist. A part of the answer is that, starting in my 20s, I read works by three people who, in my mind, were the greatest futurists of the last third of the 20th century: Alvin Toffler, R. Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan.

Toffler wrote “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave,” which shaped my thinking about “ages.” This led me to coin the phrase “the Shift Age” and write several books about it. Marshall McLuhan was, and still is, the greatest futurist and thinker about media. He saw things in their contextual whole. He correctly said that we don’t watch media as much as we live in media. R. Buckminster Fuller invented the geodesic dome and was a rapid-fire thinker and speaker of world renown. His two books that most affected me were “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” and “Utopia or Oblivion: the Prospects for Humanity,” both of which were written in the late 1960s.

Of course, I have read dozens of other books about the future in addition to a lot of science fiction and technology books. But it is these three greats - Toffler, McLuhan and Fuller - who I have referred to as the futurists on whose shoulders I stand to look well into the 21st century.

I have the great good fortune to be futurist in residence and guest lecturer at the Ringling College of Art + Design. One of my responsibilities is to guest lecture for a variety of professors, and I found that I consistently wanted to guest lecture in professor Tim Rumage’s classes. I soon realized that Tim, the head of environmental studies at Ringling, is one of the smartest people I have ever met about Earth's interconnectedness.

We decided, more than two years ago, to write a book about climate change. The process took much longer than expected. As time passed, we became increasingly alarmed by the feedback the planet giving humanity. The forecasts from the early 1990s about how bad climate change was going to be in 2040 were actually being manifested in 2014! This presented a problem: How could we finish the book without it being quickly out of date?

So we decided to publish a short, high-level book, readable in two to three hours, that covered the big issues about the topic and to have a companion website that could be constantly updated.

“This Spaceship Earth” was published in December.

The words of Fuller and McLuhan have stayed with me for 45 years. McLuhan said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” Fuller said: “We live on this Spaceship Earth but do not have an operating manual” and “In several decades, humanity would approach a fork in the road: utopia or oblivion.”

All three statements are still relevant, but the one that has altered what I now do for a living is the last one. I have spent a decade suggesting that coming transformative changes might lead humanity to utopia. After two years of research, it became clear to me that climate change was the oblivion Fuller forecast, that there may be no civilization as we know it in 2100 unless collective action is taken by 2030. I decided that it would be a dereliction of my professional duty as a futurist to not speak about climate change. But how?

McLuhan supplied the answer: We are all crew! We must think like crew, as this spaceship is the only place we have.

Climate change will, over the next 20 to 30 years, affect businesses, particularly in Sarasota, more than any other single thing. For those who face it and think and act like crew, there are huge opportunities. For those who think climate change is still politics and not physics, much will be lost. It is worth noting that in a recent poll, 65 percent of Americans said they believe climate change is real and caused by humanity.

Tim and I, along with local tech marketing entrepreneur Bob Leonard and Ringling graduate Devin Lee Ostertag, have just launched a global facing non-profit, headquartered in Sarasota to create crew consciousness. It is called ThisSpaceshipEarth.org and our beta website has just been launched. Please take a look, and if you would like any of us to speak to your company or a group you belong to, we will be glad to do so, for free.

I will write more about the economics, health issues and Sarasota specifics around climate change in future articles.