EAST MANATEE -- A crowd of roughly 500 spent Sunday afternoon dining on fresh green salad, goat's cheese with herbs and roasted vegetables. They also listened to folksy music, took hay rides and relaxed on blankets under oak trees.
Although Manatee and Sarasota's 2012 National Food Day at King Farm , 4630 60th St. E., looked like any other giant picnic replete with moms, dads and kids, these participants were also making a bit of a political statement, advocating sustainable, locally grown, safe food, said Jillian Ross of Sarasota, who came with her daughter, Kaitlyn Ulaszek, 6.
"Planting seeds to make plants is important," said Kaitlyn, who has the serious demeanor of a born horticulturist.
With the help of King farm family member Marti King, Kaitlyn and scores of other children got to plant swiss chard or broccoli seeds into paper cups at the event to help them understand how food can be sustainable.
"The food we eat is important," Kaitlyn added as she carefully covered the seeds with dark dirt.
National Food Day, with a mission of increasing awareness for sustainable, healthy food, is held annually on Oct. 24, but was switched locally
to Sunday to attract more visitors, organizers said.
For Marti King, her parents, Bob and Susan, who bought the roughly 100-acre King farm in the 1960s, and Marti's two brothers and sisters-in-law, Joe and Sara and Ben and Shelby, Sunday was bittersweet.
For the first time in two years, King Farm will not open this winter to sell the 60 varieties of vegetables for which the farm has become a well-known area vendor.
The Kings say they can no longer compete with vegetables imported from Mexico, Guatemala and other countries, which don't have to abide by as many regulations and have cheaper labor costs.
Their plight is part of the nationwide battle being waged by farms striving for locally grown, safe food, Ben King said.
"On average, we have to be priced 30 to 40 percent higher than Walmart in order to do more than break even," said Ben King, who employs about 10 full-time hands at the farm.
"God bless the customers we did have who would still buy from us," King added. "We just needed more."
Many of those who attended Sunday's event had heard about the upcoming vegetable farm closure through the King Farm newsletter. All said they would pay higher prices.
"I was upset when I heard," said Jill Meyers of Venice who, with her husband, Charlie, paid $15 Sunday for a plate of pulled pork and fresh green salad that Meyers rates as "wonderful," as well as roasted vegetables, goat's cheese with herbs, black-eyed peas, fresh corn on the cob and Key lime pie.
"This is close enough that I would drive up to get all my vegetables," Jill Meyers added. "I am interested in this old farm philosophy. If I won the lottery, I would buy a farm like this and have people run it for me."
But Shelby King said price is just too important these days to most customers.
"People say to me, 'Why are you higher than Publix and Walmart?'" Shelby King. "The model for the small American farmer just doesn't work right now. We are hoping something will change to enable us to open next year."
With the winter farm market gone, the Kings are leasing their pastoral farm out as a venue for weddings, parties, corporate unity weekends, retreats and other events.
They are also focusing on educational tours for schools and other organizations.
The Kings, however, will still sell blueberries and peaches from the end of March through June, Ben King said.
So what are Ben King and his 10 farm hands doing with all their free time until March?
"We've now got King Nuisance Species Removal, like Brazilian peppers," King said.
For more information on King Farm, call 941-779-5591.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter can be contacted at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686 or tweet @RichardDymond.