Agri Leader

Florida's ag biz is 500 years in the making

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León's discovery of Florida. The area was originally named "La Florida," by Ponce de Leon's group of explorers. Florida's agricultural history shifted when Ponce de Leon landed, because the food sources changed from what the Indians were eating and using, to include what the Europeans desired and later introduced to the area, such as cattle, hogs, citrus, and sugarcane. Today, Florida produces nearly 300 agricultural commodities making the agricultural industry the second largest industry in the state. Over the past 500 years, the agricultural industry has greatly evolved and is now a major agriculture player. In fact, according to FDACS, Florida ranks 9th nationally for total agricultural sales in the United States. The beginnings of Florida agriculture started around 500 A.D., with the first Paleo-Indian cultures that first migrated into Florida where they hunted and cultivated their first crops, including corn, squash, cucumbers and beans. "Many Florida Indians were partial hunter-gathers - that is, they cultivated crops for much of the year but followed game in the winter," said Jon Sensbach, professor, Department of History, UF. This sustainable combination of fishing, hunting and agriculture meant that Florida's population, at the time of European contact, was relatively dense by the standards of the 16th century, when Ponce De Leon first landed in Florida.
"It may have been around 250,000," added Sensbach, who mentioned that there are differing views as to where he first landed. Some believe it was near St. Augustine, the location of the first permanent settlement. Others feel it was nearer to the Cape Canaveral area. "It was likely that the Spaniards introduced newer crops after their first permanent settlement in St. Augustine, around 1565," added Sensbach, who said that citrus would certainly have been among these crops as citrus was long familiar to the Spaniards who colonized America. While pineapples, tomatoes, corn, potatoes are indigenous to the Americas, the Spaniards may have been the ones who introduced pineapple and tomatoes. "If they were not already part of the Native American diet in Florida at the time of colonization, then the Spaniards likely brought those crops to Florida from their colonies in South America and the Caribbean," added Sensbach. One crop the Spaniards certainly introduced to Florida was sugarcane, the forerunner of the modern sugar industry. "Sugarcane was already cultivated on plantations in the Spanish Caribbean in the 16th century, but never in large quantities in Florida during the first Spanish period (1565-1763)," said Sensbach, who explained that the reasoning is due to the area where the Spanish settlement was initially concentrated. "The St. Augustine area does not offer a frost-free climate, which is imperative to the successful growth of sugarcane," added Sensbach. When the British arrived between 1763-1783, they took over Florida from the Spanish and subsequently introduced rice agriculture on the model of early South Carolina and Georgia, where rice was cultivated by slave labor in low-lying coastal areas. The British also planted orange groves in northern Florida. "After the Spanish retook control of Florida, during the second Spanish period (1783-1821), an English planter named Zephaniah Kingsley had a large plantation north of Jacksonville where his slaves cultivated rice and cotton," said Sensbach. Once the U.S. gained control of Florida (1821), cotton was then heavily cultivated in the northern part of the state, especially through the Civil War, 1861-1864. In 1836, the first railroads began to operate in Florida, and by 1880, due to this easier mode of transportation, large scale commercial agriculture began taking root. During the 1920s, when Florida's land boom took place, Americans had the time to vacation in Florida and the money to invest in real estate. During this time, Florida became the popular vacation spot that it remains today. Tourism is still booming and the tourism industry is the largest industry in Florida. According the 2012 U.S. Census, the population is now an incredible 19,317,568, which obviously has an enormous impact on the size of today's agricultural industry, an industry that comes in an impressive second place to tourism.