Jessica Ryals, Sustainable Food Systems Agent University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Published 10:00 a.m. ET June 25, 2019
While Collier County is known for its beaches and resort-style living, its historic and current economic engine is agriculture. Florida’s commerce and distribution infrastructure are well established for products exported national and internationally, making Collier County a significant contributor to the national food system.
Collier County hosts an array of agricultural operations of all shapes and sizes, including fresh vegetables, citrus, watermelon, tropical fruits, ornamental plants, livestock and stone crabs. Immokalee is home to high-yielding vegetable production that feeds the country during the cold winters.
Collier County’s ancillary agricultural industries such as equipment suppliers, fertilizer and seed companies are essential to food production in Florida.
The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) calculates that in 2016, agricultural and related industries generated 52,419 jobs in Collier County, nearly a quarter of total jobs in the county. Collier County’s agriculture, natural resources and food industries have direct sales of more than $2.5 billion (UF/IFAS Economic Impact Study, 2016).
Farming is a high-risk business. Weather, input costs, changing markets, land prices and use, workforce uncertainty, pests and disease are pressing issues. Huanglongbing (HLB/Citrus Greening), hurricanes, flooding, and competition from Brazilian markets have all contributed to the decline in citrus acreage, production and sales.
For the fresh vegetable industry, an increase of imports from Mexico have made it challenging to compete with its low wages, forcing Florida growers to lower their prices, resulting in decreased sales and uncertain profit margins. Hurricanes and wildfires have also been a hurdle for some horticultural producers in eastern Collier County.
Despite obstacles and setbacks, agriculture in Collier County has proven to be resilient. The industry continues to implement new technology that reduces water usage, fertilizer and pesticide applications. Farmers in Southwest Florida are constantly exploring ways to reduce their cost and footprint on the environment. Many growers have changed their business model to tap into specialized markets such as Asian, Hispanic and organic vegetable crops.
Agriculture in Collier County is important for natural resource protection. Quantifying environmental support that farms provide include ground water recharge, surface water storage, managed wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration. Ranchers, for example, are valuable partners, inextricably linked with conservation efforts.
Consumers want to know where their food comes from and reduce their carbon footprint. They increasingly demand regional products — a good thing for our local farms and economy. Many of our residents, chefs, food entrepreneurs, farmers and food-truckers are growing the local food scene.
The Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services calculate that 90 percent of Florida’s 48,000 farms are small farms. Collier County is home to more than 300 farms, a majority of them small, family-owned and operated. Dr. Alan Hodges, an economist with UF/IFAS calculates that Farm Gate Sales (meaning, farms that sell direct to their customers such as at farmers markets, restaurants, and independent retailers) in all Southwest Florida, which includes Glades, Lee, Hendry and Collier counties, in 2016 was more than $1.3 billion.
For every “food dollar” spent, farmers receive only about 14 cents. About 86 cents goes towards packaging, marketing, trade, distributing and food services (USDA, Economic Research Service). If you support local agriculture and want to see more of that share go to our farmers, make sure to visit a farmer’s market, join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), drive out to Immokalee and interact/volunteer with the community, request local and Fresh From Florida foods at your grocery store and look for farm-to-table restaurants.
Learn more about agriculture and see UF/IFAS Extension Collier County calendar of events at http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/collier/.
Jessica Ryals is the Sustainable Food Systems (Agricultural) Agent for Collier County UF/IFAS Extension. She develops food system educational programs that focus on farm food production, processing, distribution, regulation, safety and collaborates with producers, small-business owners, citizens, and industry members to strengthen access to a local/regional food system.
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