Growth Opportunities in Florida Agriculture
Florida growers and ranchers say market conditions are better but still off the peak.
Executive vice president
Florida Sugar Cane League
West Palm Beach
» Weston: “We’ve had a subpar five or six years from all those weather problems, the droughts, freezes and past hurricanes.”
» Cantens: “We’re just coming out of that cycle of damaged crops. Last year we saw a good increase in the yield of the crop. We’re hoping for numbers comparable to pre-2005. We’re pretty optimistic. We’re starting to get back to some of the numbers we saw before the storms several years ago.”
» Weston: “The price of sugar has been dropping for the last 20 months. We’re going to have very good supplies in the United States and elsewhere in the world. It’s probably going to drop our prices.”
» Cantens: “We’re the largest sugar refiner in the world right now. We’re actually refining 5.5 million tons a year around the world. We’re continuously looking for new markets to expand into.”
» Weston: “We’re looking for a farm bill that will continue the no-cost sugar program. We think we’ve got a good message.”
Targeting Citrus Greening
Citrus growers across Florida cringed in 2005 when greening, a lethal tree disease carried by an insect, was confirmed. They had reason. Harvests shrank. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences economists in January estimated that the bacterial disease has cost Florida’s economy $3.63 billion in lost revenue and 6,611 jobs. Finding a way to combat greening has become the Holy Grail of the industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in October announced a $9-million grant to the Citrus Research and Development Foundation in Lake Alfred for anti-greening research.
Growers are optimistic an answer will be found. They point to one of the largest growers and juice processors in Florida, U.S. Sugar subsidiary Southern Gardens Citrus, based in Clewiston, which is working with a spinach gene incorporated into citrus trees. “We as a company have been very proactive in learning how to deal with this disease as well as ultimately finding a solution to this disease,” says Rick Kress, president of Southern Gardens, which is working with Texas A&M University on the spinach gene approach, one of several remedies being pursued. The technology has demonstrated resistance in the lab to greening and citrus canker, another industry scourge. In 2009, Southern Gardens planted trees with the gene and is evaluating their performance. “We’re optimistic, but we’re also realistic,” says Kress, a Cornell graduate in food science. “It takes time.”
Smaller Farms: While agriculture — including fishing and forestry — is a substantial and highly visible component of Florida’s economy, it accounts for less than 1% of economic activity in the state. Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis put agriculture 19th among Florida’s economic sectors. Between 2001-10, farm acreage shrank by more than 1 million acres, but the number of farms grew by 2,500.