The Florida Ag Expo earlier this month, attended by more than 650 people, provided a behind-the-scenes view of the concerns that Florida farmers have nowadays.
The expo started off with a grower panel that addressed key challenges and opportunities in Florida agriculture and featured panelists who grow blueberries, greens, tomatoes, and other items.
I detailed the panel discussion in my column last week. The panelists discussed how technology has transformed the way they farm and may work as an incentive to attract younger farmers to the business. Social media will also play a larger role going forward to market farms, especially to consumer (versus retail) audiences. Labor - both attracting future farmers as well as farm workers - is a major concern for the panelists.
Another session focused on Florida tomatoes, during which Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Committee discussed the exploding growth of the Mexican tomato market and how it has hurt Florida tomato farming. The U.S. tomato industry has had to unite to work with regulators and help establish some boundaries regarding how much the Mexican tomato market can impact U.S. farmers. Brown believes other U.S.-based produce items will have to similarly unite to fight overseas competition. "Many commodities threatened by imports won't be able to pull this off," he said.
Nonetheless, fresh market tomatoes are still a big business in Florida, as are strawberries, said Zhengfei Guan of the University of Florida. However, Mexico is also looking to expand its strawberry business and double its strawberry acreage in the next five years, Guan said. Stay on your toes, Florida strawberry growers.
Afternoon educational sessions focused on pest management and alternatives to methyl bromide, the latter of which was used for pest and weed control for many years but has now been phased out.
Expo attendees could also participate in tours - during which attendees boarded a hayride-like seating area led by a tractor - to discover more about "Strawberry varieties for early planting," "Integrated weed management plans for tomatoes," "Using copper and copper alternatives for bacterial leaf spot management on tomatoes," and other topics.
Now, you get a gold star if you've noticed that my story has mentioned weed, pest and disease management a few times. Although I write about agriculture every week and have visited various farms in the past several years, one thing that surprised me at the expo was how much focus there was on pest and weed control.
One of the first things you learn about farming in Florida is how challenging it is to farm here due to the heat, the sandy soil and the multitude of pests and weeds. However, the expo made it crystal clear for me the effort involved with pest and weed control, especially for large-scale farms. In fact, a free handout for attendees was a book called "Vegetable Pest ID & Control Volume 2."
Before attendees drove home in their pick-up trucks, they spent a lot of time checking out the vendors. As mentioned, pest/weed control businesses were a big part of the vendor mix, as were seed companies, equipment manufacturers, and financial and real estate companies. However, a few vendors also provided food samples - naturally, my favorite part.
I tried pomegranates from the Florida Pomegranate Association, Florida peanuts, Noble orange juice, and a variety of citrus items that are under development by the University of Florida. Apparently the university lets growers try the citrus breeds and give their feedback on which ones are tastiest, to help determine the varieties that will be sold to a consumer market.
Other vendors that were unique included the Fresh from Florida campaign and the Florida Agriculture Crimes Unit. Additionally, University of Florida grad students displayed research posters related to agriculture and discussed their findings with attendees.
The Florida Ag Expo was held at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm. The center is part of the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Services. The expo was presented by Florida Grower magazine, the University of Florida, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Strawberry Growers Association and Florida Tomato Committee.