Poll: Floridians say farming is most important industry in state

Mary Beth Locke picks blueberries at her farm, Back Road Berries in Oxford. She allows customers to pick the fruit.

Even in a state full of natural wonders and tourist hot spots, it all comes back to the oranges. The fruits and vegetables from Florida continue to command as much importance as they did in the past, even in a time where people are more likely to find houses than citrus groves. New polling data from the Florida Ag Coalition, a group that lobbies for the agriculture industry in the Florida Legislature, found 98% of Florida voters believe farming and ranching are the most important industries in the state, and 92% of them approved of the work Florida’s farmers did keeping grocery stores supplied with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Agriculture held a slight edge over Florida’s tourism and construction industries, which also are considered critical drivers of the state economy.

Meeting Needs in Crisis

The role Florida’s farmers play in addressing regional, statewide and nationwide challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain disruptions that caused commodity shortages help explain this public support.

“A lot of the produce (at the start of the pandemic) didn’t get picked, and it led to a shortage,” said Huey Reed, owner of Reed’s Groves in Weirsdale. “And anytime there’s a shortage, people tend to appreciate what they took for granted.”

The new data is not the first to suggest the pandemic and supply chain disruptions caused Americans and Floridians to agree with Reed’s sentiment.

In September 2020, a Gallup poll found farming and agriculture ranked No. 1 among America’s business and industry sectors with a 69% positive rating, the first time it led this survey since Gallup began tracking Americans’ views of industry sectors in 2000. Farmers’ positive rating also improved 11 percentage points over 2019.

A Farming Leader

As of 2020, Florida has a total of 47,500 farms and ranches utilizing 9.7 million acres of agricultural land, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Locally, Sumter had 1,307 farms, Lake had 1,703 and Marion had 3,985 as of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, which the USDA issued in 2019.

Despite the ongoing issue of farmers losing land to development, the number of acres in Florida’s farmland grew by 400,000 acres since 2007, according to the USDA.

Florida leads the nation in citrus production, responsible for 53% of the value of the nation’s oranges and 43% of grapefruits, according to the USDA. Other top crops include strawberries, tomatoes, bell peppers, sweet corn, cucumbers and watermelons.

It’s one of the leading cattle ranching states. Cattle inventory increased by about 10,000 head to 1.69 million, according to the USDA. About 90% of Florida’s cows are raised for beef.

Cattle inventory by head was 46,000 in Sumter, 48,000 in Marion and 26,000 in Lake in 2020.

Stepping Up To Challenges

Early in the pandemic, shortages of certain items emerged as a result of panic buying at supermarkets and large, wholesale farmers letting crops and commodities go to waste while their clients were closed for business.

The pandemic forced tri-county farmers to think creatively to get their products out to consumers.

To do that, they had to think like restaurateurs.

Some farmers tried two of the restaurant industry’s pandemic survival tactics, curbside pickup and food delivery.

Reed temporarily offered home delivery of his oranges, as well as curbside pickup from Reed’s Groves’ packing house on County Road 25 in Weirsdale.

Beekeeper Scott Irving, owner of Riverview Apiaries in Lake Panasoffkee, offered curbside pickup of honey from his Leesburg bottling plant when the Brownwood Farmers Market was closed in April and May 2020.

Wholesome Conversions Farm in Weirsdale, where Scott and Melanie Moore raise chickens for meat and eggs, offered on-site order pickups from customers on Sunday afternoons. Customers picked up their food from an area isolated from where the chickens are, Scott said.

And Rebecca Handley, co-owner of HM Cattle Co. in Webster, said she’s now offering home delivery, which raises cattle for steaks, roasts, ground beef and other products to The Villages.

Thankful for Farmers

Another farmer, Mary Beth Locke of Back Road Berries in Oxford, was able to salvage her blueberry season by offering customers the chance to pick their own berries by appointment. She also offered “we pick” berries, where she picked the berries for customers who weren’t comfortable with picking the fruits themselves.

“We were actually able to stay open during the pandemic even during the shutdown,” she said. “We had to limit the number of people that came out, but they were able to get outside and get out of the house. And they also were able to get fresh produce.”

One thing Locke commonly heard during that time — as did other farmers — was people sharing how thankful they were for staying open and getting the food they’re cultivating out into the community.

“A lot of our customers come out and thank us for being here and allowing them to come out and pick,” she said. “They really appreciate it.”

Reed sees this appreciation persisting, as evidenced by how busy the Brownwood Farmers Market has been since reopening in June 2020.

“People are just happy to be back out,” he said.

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.