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Agriculture: Growing Numbers

Alan Hodges & David Mulkey
Professors Alan Hodges (left) and David Mulkey go over
data establishing the economic impact in Florida of agriculture. [Photo: Thomas Wright UF/IFAS]
For years, the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services has reported that agriculture is Florida's second-largest industry, generating more than $100 billion a year in economic impact.

But lately, that figure — calculated by the University of Florida's Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences — has been questioned by Tom Swihart, longtime water policy chief at the Department of Environmental Protection. Swihart, who retired last year, has written a book, "Florida's Water: A Valuable Resource in a Vulnerable State," in which he says agriculture uses nearly half of Florida's water but generates only about 1.5% of gross state product.

Swihart points out that IFAS' calculation includes activities such as "food and kindred product manufacturing" — which adds the impact of grocery stores and restaurants, for example, to arrive at the $133 billion total for agriculture.

And Swihart is not the only critic of the methodology, which is intended to portray the ag sector from seed to supper plate. Even some inside the industry, such as Mike Stewart at the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, argue that the statistic is not the most useful.

Professor Alan Hodges, the 26-year IFAS agricultural economist who calculated the figure, says he shared Stewart's view of the usefulness of the number. But former
IFAS Vice President Jimmy Cheek, now chancellor at the University of Tennessee, insisted that Hodges and his fellow ag economists calculate the impact more broadly.

Cheek "felt it was important because of everything IFAS deals with — from local food systems to food safety to food distribution," Hodges says.

If the definition of agriculture is limited to all fruit, vegetable and nursery crops, as well as forestry and fisheries and directly related economic activities, the industry's impact falls to just over $45 billion, putting it behind not only real estate, but tourism, construction, manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, information and financial services and even government.

"Some people misuse it," Hodges acknowledges. "But when you consider that our reports are used to gain public resources and political clout, you can see why this is an occupational hazard."

Tom Swihart
Retired water policy chief Tom Swihart says agriculture's economic impact is exaggerated. [Photo: Thomas Wright UF/IFAS]