Ag expo unifies farms, shares ideas
AGRI-CULTURE "Farming ain't for sissies." I can't take credit for that quote, but boy it sure rings true. Challenges that Florida farmers face include international competition, stifling regulation, rising business costs, labor concerns, urban encroachment, and pests-and if that isn't enough, there's always the threat of bad weather wiping out the crops.The quote was on a presentation slide during the Florida Ag Expo, an annual event held last week at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Services, Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm. During a discussion on the challenges and opportunities in Florida agriculture, a few themes emerged from the panelists. First, finding and keeping good farmers and farm workers keeps this crowd up at night. When you tell young people about farming's 24/7 schedule, it doesn't usually get them flocking to the door. Michael Hill of Lakeshore Growers in Clermont, the youngest of the four panelists, said he always felt drawn to farming - his family business - but knows he's the exception. "You almost have to go work at a big corporation or be born into it," he said. Yet the heavy role that technology now plays in farming can help attract the younger generation to the business, said Paul Orsenigo, of Grower's Management Inc., in Belle Glade. Panelist Jamie Williams, who works for the large tomato grower Lipman in Immokalee, noted that he sees well-educated young people trained in areas like computer technology and plant physiology who are in the business. They may not do the day-to-day grunt work, but they are part of the staff at commercial farming businesses. Ultimately, farmers need to mentor those in the younger generation who are interested in farming to make sure they will continue to enter the business, said Tom O'Brien of C & D Fruit & Vegetable Company in Bradenton. On the other side of the labor coin, the panelists fretted about the tenuous state of immigration reform and how it could affect the many farm workers that they constantly need. They noted that there simply aren't enough workers in the United States to do the work that needs to get done on farms. Another big challenge for Florida farmers is competition from countries like Mexico and Chile, both of which can provide cheaper produce for retailers to sell. It will take farmers educating consumers about the value of what U.S.-based farmers have to offer, such as a fresher product. "We're almost trying to bypass the retailer and get to the consumers," said O'Brien, noting that this is not always an easy thing to do. Hill, a blueberry farmer, shared the story of some retailers who won't buy Florida blueberries till April 1, even though Hill's farm might pick their berries as early as the second or third week of March. "Those retailers will buy fruit from Chile that's been on a boat for three weeks, and ours was just picked," he said. That's an ideal example of why farmers need to do a better job of getting their message out better to consumers. The use of social media for marketing came up several times. Although three of the four panelists do not use Facebook, they all acknowledged the value of direct-to-consumer marketing via social media. Social media marketing that targets certain population groups-such as moms who make food purchases for their families-is a way to potentially boost business and get the word out about the benefits of Florida agriculture, said Hill. Direct-to-consumer marketing, farm field trips, school-based education, and participation in local farmers' markets will help teach adults and children about the health benefits of Florida agriculture and where to buy the state's ag products, the panelists said. Growers should get out the message that they have the healthiest fruits and vegetables in the world - and that most of us need to eat more of them, O'Brien said. The Florida Ag Expo was presented by Florida Grower magazine, the University of Florida, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, and Florida Tomato Committee. In my column next week, I'll share more news and tidbits from the expo.