Column: Reflections on 39 years in Florida agriculture
This will be my farewell column for Florida Grower magazine as I retire after 39 years working as a Professor of Food and Resource Economics at UF/IFAS. I have worked all commodity areas with the most time spent working with vegetable growers. It has been difficult at times and rewarding at others. Having grown up on an Iowa farm in the 1960s, I had my view of what farmers were like. Moving to Florida in 1980, I quickly learned these were not your typical farmers with big tractors, four-wheel drive trucks, and seed company hats. There was nothing wrong with those “typical” farmers. It was just that a significant portion of Florida farmers were more like bankers and policymakers. They are involved in all farm activities and in providing leadership to Florida agriculture.
My proudest moments came from making a difference for others. I had one student write in her master’s thesis at Iowa State that I was the reason she was who she was. She strayed from the field of economics and into a long career in information technologies. According to her, I gave her the confidence to choose a career and succeed.
Another proud moment came when Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) called me the “Danny Wuerffel (former Gator quarterback) of trade” after helping secure the resolution to the trade dispute over fresh-market tomatoes. My research publications helped show the U.S. International Trade Commission that Florida could compete in a fair-trade environment. That resolution survived many attacks to have it removed, and the Mexican tomato industry evolved into a different model.
We have others now working on this issue, but it appears the trade war has escalated and contributed to ending the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). We now have a new agreement, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada-Agreement (USMCA), which will replace NAFTA when it is fully implemented and hopefully give Florida growers some time to restructure and compete in this important market. The verdict on this issue has yet to be seen. There is more work to be done on this issue, and it could take years before we know how it fares with our growers.
I could fire off several other successes that make me proud, but I would be remiss if I did not highlight some failures. I waited until late in my career to get active in international development. I have found many developing countries are so far behind that small successes can be remarkable in what they provide.
Rwanda is a small landlocked African country that has suffered from droughts, floods, human strife, and internal conflict. They have seen growth-stunting rates of more than 40% in their children because of a lack of animal protein in their diets. The U.S. Agency for International Development has invested heavily in helping this country overcome this tragic existence. They gave the University of Florida funds for the Livestock Systems Innovations Lab to help develop livestock sectors to counter the health crisis in Rwanda, which has led to some important innovations in Africa and South Asia. And with the support of Florida agriculture, it can and will do more.
Florida agriculture has made significant contributions to people around the world while helping our own agriculture to survive and thrive. It needs your support and leadership to continue this success. There will be successes and failures along the way, but leadership in Florida is strong. I expect that to continue, and there will be opportunities to grow in Florida. I promise I will be an active observer in this process.