With 47,000 commercial farms and ranches on 9.45 million acres, and a variety of climates and soil types, Florida’s agriculture industry faces unique challenges. The state has long been known for tropical citrus crops and sugarcane, but many people don’t realize Florida ranks first in the nation for production of cucumbers, snap beans, tomatoes and watermelon. Much of that comes from Central Florida.
“Agriculture in Central Florida is dramatically different today than it was in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s,” says Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association (FFVA), based in Maitland. “Once upon a time, Central Florida was a hub of citrus production, foliage and nursery production, and vegetable production around Lake Apopka. Those industries have all gone away, shifted further south, or shrunk significantly based on things like weather and development pressures. That said, agriculture still plays a vital role here.”
Statewide, agriculture provides a stable economic base rivaled only by tourism. Florida farms produced more than $1.73 billion in fresh vegetable sales in 2016 — the second-highest in the nation after California, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Among other sales figures:
• Citrus – $1.03 billion
• Cattle and calves – $580 million
• Dairy – $535 million
• Poultry – $331 million
In the past decade, the state has seen growth in a new crop, much of it produced in Central Florida: blueberries. That’s because University of Florida (UF) researchers created a variety that can thrive in a warm climate. Developments like this have opened the door for new small farms.
“The motivation for people who are getting into farming and agriculture now ties into consumers’ desire to know more about their food, to understand how it’s grown, and to eat more healthful and nutritious food,” Lochridge says. “There’s something about farming and that connection to the land, and the idea of being able to grow something that is going to provide nutrition and enjoyment for other people, that is so rewarding.”
Working the land has never been easy. Farmers face different challenges than their peers in other industries.
1. Labor. “When you ask farmers what keeps them up at night, invariably they will tell you it’s labor,” Lochridge says. Agriculture is experiencing a labor shortage, along with other industries including construction and manufacturing.
2. Water. “Farmers take pride in conserving water because they know they can’t farm without it,” Lochridge says. “In Florida, with the rapid growth we’re experiencing, water quality and water quantity are going to continue to be a huge concern.”
3. Pests and diseases. With so many ports and points of entry, Florida is susceptible to imported plant pests and diseases. Previous decades saw infestations of citrus canker. Today the largest threat comes from the Asian citrus psyllid, an insect that carries the citrus greening virus, which chokes off a tree’s circulation system so it can no longer draw water through its roots.
4. Succession planning. The industry is working to entice young people by educating them about jobs available, not just in traditional farm roles but also in business functions such as accounting, human resources and marketing.
Adapting to Change
Farmers are turning to agritechnology to adapt to changing conditions. Some are using precision fertilizer application, which allows them to apply fertilizer only where it’s needed. They’re using laser leveling to plant flatter fields that are easier to manage. They’re using GPS to monitor and control irrigation systems from a computer tablet.
Some are experimenting in mechanical harvesting. A grower in Plant City is developing a machine that will use an electric eye to sense which strawberries are the right color, signifying they are ripe and ready to pick. The machine will then pluck them from the plant.
“The counties in our region account for a significant percentage of the state’s total agricultural sales, making the Florida High Tech Corridor an ideal location for agritechnology to thrive,” says Ed Schons, president of The Corridor, an economic development initiative spanning 23 counties. “Challenges to preserve the environment, meet an increasing demand for food, and ensure food freshness and safety are driving companies in the Central Florida area and beyond to innovate new technologies — from plant breeding and fertilization to alternative fuel sources and robotic harvesting.”
The Future of Farming
The new interest in where and how food is produced has created a “farm-to-table” movement among restaurants. This carries on in homes, too, where consumers increasingly want organic food and different kinds of packaging.
“They don’t want to stand in their kitchen and slice their carrots,” Lochridge says. “They want something already in a bag they can put in a microwave and cook three minutes. So you see this huge swing toward convenience packaging, already-prepared, ready-to-cook items, and grab-and-go snacks.”
The spotlight on farming is a dramatic change from 20 years ago, when people in urban centers knew little about Central Florida’s agricultural heritage.
“This new interest in food gives us the chance to raise the profile of agriculture here in Florida,” Lochridge says. “That’s good for agriculture. It’s an opportunity for farmers to their tell their story and for people to be more aware that agriculture is within a two-hour drive of where they live, and that it’s one of the economic drivers of our state.”