Opinion: Southwest Florida Ag’s Future Is Bright

The recent study by a team of Florida Gulf Coast University professors shines a light on the strength of agriculture in Southwest Florida. The study was presented recently to The Chamber of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers.

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Dr. Howard Finch and Dr. Stuart Van Auken undertook “Ag Business in Southwest Florida: Present and Future” in 2007 to gauge the attitudes of the region’s agribusiness leaders on the industry’s viability in the next five to 10 years. The study collectively presents the outlook of industry heavy-hitters who have their fingers directly on agriculture’s pulse.

Finch said the researchers wanted to show how agriculture fits into the regional economic picture. “There has been talk in the last few years as to whether agriculture has a future in the region,” he said. “One way we could be responsive to that portion of the discussion is to do a qualitative survey of the different constituents involved in the business.”

The team approached 24 agriculture CEOs representing citrus, vegetables, and juice processors. They conducted in-depth interviews with the 14 executives who agreed to participate and presented their responses anonymously. The researchers did the same with a smaller roster of representatives of the environmental community, development industry, and political arena.

Major issues cited by respondents were the need for skilled and unskilled labor, rising costs, and the myriad woes facing the citrus industry, including citrus greening and competition from Brazil. On the flip side, the CEOs said Florida has numerous strengths on its side, including a favorable climate, agricultural land as a long-term asset, and a high quality of citrus compared to Brazil.

Consolidation Concern

Finch said concern over industry consolidation was expressed over and over. With consolidation comes fewer future farmers. “Lots of smaller farms and grove land in Southwest Florida have been bought up and consolidated into fewer and larger entities holding more land,” he said. “Associated with that has been a difficulty in attracting subsequent generations of farmers. We see a definitive shift toward leasing land to third-party entities that would farm it.”

Risk Factor

Presenting the findings at the chamber meeting prompted a discussion of national security and our domestic food supply, Finch said. The large percentage of our nation’s food imports relative to the total “leaves us very vulnerable,” he added. “We are pretty exposed. So if we continue to take a lot of land out of agricultural production, we’re building even more risk.”

Community Disconnect

Finch also found a huge disconnect between the coastal business community and agriculture. No surprise there. “There’s very little communication and recognition of the relative importance of agriculture in the coastal communities,” he said. “There’s almost an unbelievable lack of awareness of the relative economic importance and the amount of land dedicated to various aspects of agribusiness production.” Yet he was encouraged by the response to the findings. “They had no idea of the extent and economic magnitude that agriculture plays, and they were favorably impressed,” he said.

Industry Importance

Despite a long list of threats to the industry, the researchers conclude that agriculture in Southwest Florida will continue to grow compared with other parts of the state, increasing the region’s importance to the industry.

“Basically, Southwest Florida may become the ag mecca for the state of Florida, and depending upon the attitudes of the U.S. government toward food independence, ag business may become an even more valued member of the economy,” the study concludes. “Overall, ag business in Southwest Florida is a key resource whose luster may still be difficult to discern, yet all of the fundamentals to promulgate success are in place.”

The study comes at an interesting time, given the current public discussion over how much University of Florida President Bernie Machen values the role of agriculture in our state’s economy. While it may not have yielded any surprises for those in the agriculture industry, if the study serves to better connect ag with the rest of the business community and consumers, it was well worth the effort.