Farming Will Always Have a Place in Florida [Opinion]

The Tampa Bay Times raised a few eyebrows in ag circles when it recently published its “Dying on the Vine” article. The lengthy piece went into great detail about the demise of Florida’s agricultural sector.

South Florida farmland
Photo by Frank Giles

The story suggested the statement that agriculture is one (along with tourism and construction) of the three pillars of the state’s economy is false. The article also stated the contention that Florida agriculture pumps more than $120 billion into the state’s economy was a “rural myth.”

As one passage noted: “Crops and livestock — the essence of the agricultural industry — now account for less than 1% of the state’s economy (about $6 billion a year according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis) and their relative contribution has been dropping fast. Just since the early 2000s, the value of agriculture as a share of the state economy has been nearly cut in half.”

Let’s be honest. All industries tend to inflate the value of their economic worth based upon some study that takes into account all sorts of multiplier effects and ancillary industries. It is more of public relations figure than a bottom-line monetary statistic.

The state’s agricultural industry responded immediately with a flurry of letters from people rebutting the article. There were examples given why Florida agriculture remains so important and more economic figures cited. It was a good and worthy response to the story.

It is hard to grasp the motivation of the Times article and perhaps there was none other than reporting on an economic sector of Florida. But, I would imagine for anybody that doesn’t know agriculture (most of the Times readership), they would read the article and say: “Florida agriculture is about dead. Might as well go ahead and put it out of its misery.”

Or maybe this could be the motivation. There was a companion editorial to the story calling into question why the Florida Agriculture Commissioner was a cabinet-level position. It is widely accepted that Commissioner Adam Putnam will be running for governor in 2018. Could this be shot across the Republican’s bow from an arguably left-leaning newspaper?

Just because the department has “agriculture” in its name doesn’t mean that’s all it does. In fact, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is one of the most powerful regulatory agencies in state government — certainly cabinet-level worthy.

The Times was not misleading when it suggested Florida’s agricultural sector faces challenges. Citrus greening, labor woes, foreign competition, and consolidation have taken their toll. But, growers are resilient and agriculture will survive in our state and elsewhere. It has to, if we want food on our plates.

But, maybe we should cheer for our industry less with dollar figures meant to impress. It may in fact help perpetuate the myth that agriculture is only this big, corporate machine. And, when you hear other industries outside yours banter about their huge economic impact — do you really care?

I think Jack Payne, Senior Vice President of UF/IFAS, summed it up well in one passage in an editorial he wrote: “There are indeed serious challenges to food production here. I just don’t believe the story that says Florida agriculture is in decline. I see the story on your supermarket shelves, on your restaurant menus, and in your farmers’ markets. I see it in farmers using technology to produce more food than ever. I see it in students preparing to dedicate the next 40 years to food production. That story is that growing food in Florida means growing prosperity.”

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