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Florida’s crops beat a tough winter

By
Seth Mendelson

“The Sunshine State.”

Florida’s famous state motto appears everywhere. It is on the state’s license plates, much of the promotional materials issued by state and local governments and even used by many in the state’s ubiquitous tourism industry.

But, what happens when the sun does not shine very often in Florida for an extended period of time?

The nation’s third largest state with a population of more than 22.2 million people, Florida found out this winter as The Sunshine State suffered through three months of winter weather that was too rainy, too chilly and simply too gloomy for many residents and businesses to thrive in.

This harsh weather hit the state’s farmers especially hard, forcing many to work more diligently to protect their winter crop and hope that the weather would turn for the better in March and April and save things. Fortunately, that is exactly what happened, as the gloom and doom of December through January turned to hope in March and great results in April.

“I think everyone worked very hard to make this season a success,” said Bill Nardelli Sr., the president of Nardelli Bros. “The weather was not great early on, but that just made the industry work harder to grow quality products. The end result is another good season of winter crops from Florida, though it was not easy. Plus, the end result is great news for the overall domestic crop.”

Florida’s winter season has become much more important for the nation’s produce industry over the years. With more than 47,000 commercial farms, using about 9.7 million acres of land, the state is first nationally in the value of production in sweet corn and sugarcane, second in bell peppers and strawberries and fourth in cabbage and cantaloup, according the United States Dept. of Agriculture’s Statistics Service.

All told, Florida produces between 200 and 300 different commodities and has some form of agriculture present in all of its 67 counties, according to research conducted by the University of Florida. About 2 million people in the state work, in some capacity, in the agricultural industry, producing more than $279 billion in sales revenue, the report stated.

The USDA’s report said that the state produces 36 percent of the total U.S. value for sweet corn, 33 percent of the total value of bell peppers and 10 percent of the total value of grapefruit. Nearly 70 percent of national winter strawberry crop comes from around the Plant City, FL area.

Making Florida more important for produce is the state’s many deep seaports, from Jacksonville in the north to Miami in the south, that allow companies to ship their merchandise to locations around the country and even the world as well as several major highways that connect the state with key metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Midwest. With those transportation arteries, many Florida growers, shippers and distributors proudly note that they can get fresh products from their farms and distribution centers to most of these areas and on retail shelves in under three days.

Yet, as with many other states, issues about the future of farming in Florida exist and need to be addressed. Government officials, including the University of Florida, say that first and foremost is a concern about the shrinking amount of farmland in the state, specifically in the fast-growing southern and central part of Florida. Second is the aging of farmers in the state, with the average age of an operator now approaching 59 years of age, the University of Florida determined.

The state has addressed the issue of shrinking farmland in the central part of the state around Lake Okeechobee and south into the Everglades through the creation of the Everglades Agricultural Area. The program is designed to protect a huge swarth of land from development and protects it against environmental hazards.

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