Water Cooler Wednesday: A New Idea for the Ag Reserve

The Ag Reserve is 21,000 acres in West Delray and Boynton

The Ag Reserve is 21,000 acres in West Delray and Boynton

We just saw an article  that the County Commission may be considering more development in Palm Beach County’s Ag Reserve.

For those of you who don’t know, the Agricultural Reserve is a 21,000 acre slice of farm land that sits west of Delray and Boynton Beach.

West Boca has already been developed out to the Everglades.

Over the years, taxpayers (that would be you, me and our neighbors) have spent $100 million to preserve the land and keep it from being developed.

But a small landowner, who owns about five acres across from the Delray Marketplace on the southeast corner of Atlantic Avenue and Lyons Road, is asking for permission to develop the parcel commercially. Proponents of the Ag Reserve say allowing the development could open up more land for commercial building.

Already 1000 Friends of Florida have seized on the proposal calling it a bad idea that could imperil the viability of the Ag Reserve.

But others think the time may be right for more commercial development in West Delray.
County Commissioner Mary Lou Berger told the Sun-Sentinel that the time may be right to at least take a look.

We couldn’t agree more.

But instead of allowing more sprawl like development in West Delray, West Boca and West Boynton, would it be possible for the County Commission to consider new and innovative ideas: say something called agriculture.

In the 1990s, when the Ag Reserve was set up, American agriculture was in trouble.

Despite being the winter vegetable capital of the U.S., local farmers told county officials that they could no longer compete thanks to NAFTA, the North American Trade Agreement which lowered trade barriers between America, Mexico and Canada.

So taxpayers stepped up and paid to establish the Ag reserve, guaranteeing at least some farm land would remain in West Delray and West Boynton. Meanwhile, a lot of other land was developed into homes and shopping centers.

But times have changed and a new and powerful trend toward locally produced food has taken root across America.

The farm to table movement is real, growing and strong. Consumers want healthier choices and fresh food, grown locally is in demand.

Farm to table restaurants such as Max’s Harvest in Delray’s Pineapple Grove are thriving. Green Markets in Delray Beach and Boca Raton are popular weekend haunts and “foodies” are flocking to small markets, produce stands and national chains such as Whole Foods and Fresh Market.

Even food publications are taking off. In a month or so, expect to see a magazine called Edible Palm Beach, published by a Delray Beach entrepreneur. Edible Palm Beach is part of a national family of publications coast to coast. PBS is launching an Edible food series.

Meanwhile, places like Napa  and Sonoma are expanding beyond wine to boutique crops, olive oils and other vegetables spurring food related tourism and other businesses ranging from craft breweries and unique restaurants to food related community centers.

Recently, a colleague and I travelled to Orlando and Winter Park, Florida to visit an 11-acre farm that is producing 300,000 organic eggs a day, hosting events for up to 400 people and selling locally grown cheeses and artisanal goods in a small retail store; people from as far as Miami drive all the way to Ocoee to buy the products.

In Winter Park, there are several indoor and outdoor markets featuring urban farms and small artisanal food purveyors who are supplementing their livelihoods and or growing brands in Florida. We even met an enterprising young woman who has started a distribution business devoted solely to Florida farmers and manufacturers selling healthy food. Restaurants she supplies are charging a premium for the locally grown goods and consumers are buying.

Perhaps, instead adding another Walgreen’s, Boston Market and Jiffy Lube we ought to explore revitalizing agriculture in our western communities.

There are certainly enough restaurants and chefs who would be eager to serve fresh food grown a few miles away.

Just a thought.