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Agriculture 2009

Workers harvest lettuce for TKM Farms in Belle Glade
Workers harvest lettuce for TKM Farms in Belle Glade. [Photo: Brian Smith]

Thriving as Others Struggle

After several years of battering by hurricanes, disease and severe drought, Florida agriculture’s outlook is bright for 2009. The ray of sunshine in cloudy times reflects a consistent trend in Florida’s modern economy: When times are tough elsewhere in the economy, agriculture often thrives.

“It’s a reminder that agriculture is a steady, consistent contribution to our state’s economy,” says Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “People don’t have to take their Disney vacation. But they do have to eat.”

Jorge Abreu
“We’re all optimistic for the coming year and especially for 2010.” — Jorge Abreu, owner of West Kendall Nursery

Eating doesn’t have as much to do with it as you might think; nearly a decade ago, horticultural products including shrubs and sod surpassed citrus as Florida’s top crop. But almost all agricultural sectors are thriving now, after season upon season of crisis. Last year was particularly painful, as farmers got a one-two punch of drought and record-breaking fuel and fertilizer cost hikes. Several longtime farms and packinghouses packed it up for good.

But now, both fuel costs and rain are falling. And while the housing market decline has driven out a few nurseries that catered to new-home developers, even the horticultural industry is making a comeback. “A lot of people are hunkering down at home to weather the economy, taking vacations at home rather than going away, and that means buying plants,” says Jorge Abreu, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association.

Abreu says many growers changed practices to deal with rising costs and found the new ideas worked better than the old: Slow-release fertilizers, for example, and checking plants to see if they need pesticides rather than automatic spraying every few weeks. “The companies that survived are stronger,” says Abreu, owner of West Kendall Nursery. “We’re all optimistic for the coming year and especially for 2010, when the housing industry begins to come around as well.”

Agriculture’s Impact in Florida
Here are the ag segments with the greatest value-added impacts — a broad measure of economic contribution comparable to GDP at the national level. Economists say the total value-added impact of agriculture in Florida is $44.36 billion. They put the overall economic impact of agriculture at about $100 billion.
Agriculture Segment (billions) Impact
Environmental horticulture $8.14
Forestry and forest products 7.98
Fruits and vegetable farming
and processing
Agricultural inputs
and support services
Other food product manufacturing 6.36
Tobacco farming and manufacturing 2.91
Mining 1.94
Sugarcane farming
and refined sugar manufacturing
Livestock and dairy farming and
animal products manufacturing
Source: University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences analysis of 2006 U.S. Department of Commerce data
A Lesson in Nutrition

Leon County students
Leon County students tend to their school garden.
The local-food movement that helped spark a renaissance of community farmers markets in Florida over the past few years is slowly making its way into the state’s school districts. In Jackson County, public school students get fresh-grown collards all year, and teen agricultural entrepreneurs are being trained to supply produce to area districts as soon as they graduate. Leon County is not only purchasing fruits and vegetables locally, but also starting school gardens and in-class nutrition education throughout the district. The so-called “farm-to-school” programs make sense, says Florida A&M University extension marketing specialist Vonda Richardson, because they make school lunches healthier, help educate kids about nutrition and support small and medium-sized Florida farms. Alachua and Flagler counties have new efforts to buy local produce, Richardson says, and Escambia, Franklin and Duval counties are all in negotiations for local-food contracts.