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Farmers work to turn out healthy products

Local agriculturalists focus on the wellness of their animals and producing healthful foods.

Published February 15, 2004

The nationwide push to eat healthy is being felt by producers of agricultural products in Hernando County.

Although farmers are a dwindling breed locally, those who produce the meat and milk, gather the eggs and grow the citrus and vegetables are attuned to changing consumer demands and tastes.

Most farmers are cautiously optimistic about the coming year.

Cattle prices slumped in January, said Hernando rancher Jimmy Batten, in the wake of a confirmed case of mad cow disease in Washington state that especially worried the health-conscious.

Batten said he did not expect the slump to last long as the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a widely accepted public bulletin that the country's food supply is safe. The USDA also tightened regulations to ensure the slaughter of only healthy animals.

And, both Washington state and Canada, where the diseased cow originated, are far from Florida and not a likely purchase source for area cattlemen, said Batten, 57, who has been raising cattle full time since 1969 and now runs 400 commercial crossbred cows.

Johnny Melton, who manages 700 crossbred cattle near Brooksville, concurred that the mad cow scare would be a short-term crisis. Cattle futures prices were up the first week of January, he pointed out. Melton, born into the cattle business and now 52, has weathered plenty of beef cycles, so he has a handle on markets and consumer response.

Dairyman Kenneth Smith of T.J. Smith & Son Dairy Inc. of Brooksville was not as optimistic.

"We're in the beef business by selling our cull cows," he said. He predicted a 10-cents-a-pound drop in the price for cull cows, which end up as hamburger. The diseased cow was of dairy breeding.

Healthy meat is only one product being demanded by the consumer.

Smith, who began his dairying endeavor 60 years ago as a 6-year-old 4-H member, said food shoppers during the past several years have been moving down the dairy aisles at supermarkets to low-fat milk, considered healthier for its fewer calories.

"Two-thirds of all milk sold is reduced-fat," said Allison Didier, spokeswoman for Dairy Farms Inc., an Orlando lobbyist for the dairy industry.

The trend took off in the mid to late 1990s, she said. But there has been a modest return to whole milk - 31.5 percent of sales - since 2000 by consumers who missed the more satisfying flavor of the real thing, Didier said.

The reduced-fat trend hasn't hurt Smith and other milk producers, who are paid on a scale of their product's butterfat content. Even though low-fat is the consumer's choice for fluid milk, butterfat extracted from whole milk finds a ready outlet in the production of increasingly popular cheese and high-end ice cream, Didier said.

There's another bright light on the dairy horizon.

"All the cry about soft drinks and sugar, it looks like it should be good for us," Smith said.

He is hopeful that the concern about sugar and obesity will translate into more milk consumption.

The return of eggs to diets has been good for the poultry business after the industry suffered a long-term hit from the "high cholesterol" label.

"We've been enjoying a steady increase in egg consumption," said Chuck Smith, executive vice president of the Florida Poultry Federation.

The egg industry, too, has responded to consumer demands for a healthier product.

Hillandale Farm, with production facilities in Dade City and a pullet enterprise near Masaryktown, is producing not just the ordinary white egg - a healthy food, Smith insists, and preferred by 95 percent of consumers. It also markets organic eggs, whose layers have never been touched by or fed with antibiotics, pesticides or commercial fertilizer; designer eggs, whose layers have been fed a kelp-augmented feed or a four-grain combination; and brown-shelled eggs.

While Smith makes no claims for any one egg being healthier than the next, he says all the suppliers who market to the major supermarket chains produce to answer demands. And it is paying off.

"The commercial egg industry has been enjoying some fairly decent pricing and is optimistic for 2004 that it will remain profitable because we've got a good balance between production and pricing," Smith said.

The rush to no-carb or low-carb diets also could help egg sales, he added.

Eggs are a mainstay on the popular Atkins diet.

Vitamins and fiber also figure into healthy eating - another benefit to Hernando agriculture.

"A lot of people now (say) oranges and tangerines are good for their systems," said Jim Oleson, owner of the county's largest commercial citrus enterprise, Boyett Grove, in Spring Lake.

Oranges are in the greatest demand, Oleson said. Purchases of grapefruit have fallen somewhat as more consumers have learned that the fruit interferes with certain medications, he added.

Vegetables are in such vogue that truck farmer Joann Beasley, who grows 7 acres of produce year-round off Preston Street east of Brooksville, fields phone calls from customers who merely ask: "What's in" or "What's coming in?"

They will buy turnips, mustard greens, spinach, zucchini and yellow squash; they pick their own green peas, shell peas and green beans.

Responding to customer desires and her own concern for the environment, Beasley said, "I try to stay seriously away from pesticides."

Many of Beasley's mostly middle-age customers take their purchases to the Hernando County Rock Cannery, a county-owned processing kitchen open to the public, where they cook and jar the produce without preservatives, which they perceive as the healthiest method.

"We're getting back to what's healthy," Beasley said.

[Last modified February 15, 2004, 01:15:45]

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