Despite Urbanization and the Growing Local Focus on
High-Tech, Agriculture Is Still a Big Part of the Area Economy
The 21st century has been a time of change for the agricultural industry in Alachua County.
Nearly 40,000 people moved into the county in the last decade, and creating housing for this influx led to a loss of 31,549 acres of forest and farmland in the last eight years alone.
Indeed, according to an October 2010 study by UF’s Food & Resource Economics Department, agriculture has a $9.22 billion total impact on the local economy, while producing 20,055 jobs.
By some measures, the industry appears to be growing, though it is clearly transforming as well. For example, the number of smaller farms is increasing and full-time farmers are diversifying, says Wendy Wilber, Alachua County Environmental Horticulture Extension agent.
“A small farm can’t make it by just raising a single crop,” she says. “If you’re truly serious about an independent farming operation, and there are 1,500 or so in the county, you have to diversify.”
How else is agriculture transforming? And how are various segments doing? To find out, The Business Report looked at the largest parts of the industry. Here’s what we learned.
Some people may not think of forestry as agriculture, “but they should,” says county forester Dave Conser.
“Growing trees commercially is the biggest agricultural endeavor in Alachua County,” he says. “Forestry is more than just logging or planting pines. It’s managing our natural resources for a sustainable yield.”
A 2005 publication by UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences estimated that more than half of the county’s 874 square miles of land, or about 300,000 acres, was in pine plantations, managed mixed forests or woods. And, a recent University of Florida study estimated forestry contributes $400 million to the county economy while employing more than 2,000 people.
The Florida Forestry Association says the vast acreage of forests is necessary to satisfy our demand for paper products and building materials, although both of those needs have declined in recent years due to the housing downturn and cutbacks in the need for pulp wood as printed publications have decreased with the shift to the Internet.
Soon, though, there will be a new need for forest products. Gainesville’s planned biomass energy plant will burn thousands of tons of wood debris and low-quality trees to generate energy.
It takes a lot of land to make a living strictly off forestry, Conser says, so most local owners treat their forests as part-time businesses.
But whether it’s full- or part-time, forestry is an industry facing numerous threats. Native problems like pine beetles have always been part of the landscape, Conser says. Now, exotic pests such as the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle are posing extreme danger. This beetle may soon eliminate bay trees east of the Mississippi River. And, because it carries laurel wilt, the Redbay Ambrosia Beetle may well destroy South Florida’s $13 million avocado business within a few years.
The other problem for foresters is increasing fragmentation of land due to suburbanization and highway development. Once a forest owner might have managed 1,000 acres that was fairly much contiguous. Now, a forest might be broken into a dozen segments split up by roads and housing developments. Because the cost of working multiple locations is significantly higher, this fragmentation ultimately could make it too expensive to farm.
There are nearly one million beef cattle in Florida and while annual cash receipts vary depending upon market conditions, cattle ranching contributed $375 million to the economy in 2009.
Roger West, current president of the Alachua County Farm Bureau, is one of the local businesspeople making money from ranching. West, who retired from the University of Florida seven years ago, has a cow-calf operation. (He raises calves, which are shipped to other states to grow to full size.) He works 2,000 acres in nine separate parcels of land, which increases his driving time and fuel costs.
“I have about 400 head and cattle are on the up-cycle now,” he says. “Prices are good, but costs, especially anything related to oil such as fuel and fertilizer, are also increasing.” So profit can vary depending on conditions that are well beyond his control.
Of course, “livestock” not only means beef cattle, but also dairy cattle, goats, hogs, sheep, llamas and alpacas, emus, chickens and horses. Goats are the major growth industry. They are raised for both meat and dairy products.
Cindy Sanders, Alachua County Extension Director and Livestock Agent, says that with an estimated 3,201 head, the county is No. 2 in the state for goats. Of the 182 producers, most raise meat animals for the South Florida Hispanic market. Only 10 to 15 percent raise goats for milk, cheese and butter, which is much more work.
Horses represent another successful segment of the county’s livestock industry. “While Marion County is known for thoroughbreds, we have become a huge magnet for performance horses” says Carlie Evans, who owns the Canterbury Equestrian Showcase in Newberry with Wendy Low.
Citing a recent study, Low estimates that Canterbury brings as much as $4 million annually to Alachua County through money that visitors spend in local stores, motels and restaurants.
“We have become a big draw,” Low says, “and I believe that a lot of hobby farms, 5 to 10 acres, now have horses because we have a superior facility for training, competition and riding.”
If you love broccoli or watermelon, tomatoes or blueberries, flowers or honey, hug a bee. State apiary chief Jerry Hayes says nearly $1.5 billion-worth of Florida produce, flowers and herbs is pollinator-dependent, relying primarily of the efforts of the European honey bee.
There are about 75 beekeepers registered in Alachua County.
While bees’ main contribution to the economy is through pollination, they also produce a sweet product of their own.
A healthy hive may yield 60 pounds of honey a year,” Hayes says, “and at $20 a pound you could estimate a hive is worth $1,200 gross.”
Bee farming can be a difficult business. First, there’s the widely publicized problem of “colony collapse disorder,” where for unknown reasons bees abandon a hive and disappear. This results in at least a 30 percent loss of bees each winter for commercial beekeepers, Hayes says. “Imagine if that much inventory disappeared from your business every year.”
And there is the growing problem of the Africanized honey bee or “killer bee” forcing out the European honey bee population.
Aparna Gazula, Alachua County Commercial Horticulture Extension agent, says “horticulture” includes growing vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries and ornamentals, plus landscape nurseries and greenhouses.
Vegetable production alone is worth at least $13 million a year in the county and covers almost 6,000 acres. The largest plots are devoted to beans, watermelons, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes and squash. The growing of fruits, nuts and berries contributes another $8 million on 2,682 acres.
“We are actually number one in the state for pecan production,” Gazula says, “with approximately 1,656 acres. There is also a large blueberry industry with around 796 acres in blueberries.”
Revenues from Alachua County’s ornamental and landscape nursery and greenhouse industry are approximately $11 million annually. Plants are grown in approximately 1.4 million square feet of greenhouse space, along with 1,255 acres in the open.
Farming intensively, you can raise an abundance of produce and ornamentals on a small property. If you doubt that, ask former county commissioner Jim Notestein who, with wife Emily, operates Notestein’s Nursery on one acre in Gainesville. There, they cultivate about 200 varieties of flowers, palms and trees, some in the open and some under shade cloth.
“Last time I checked,” says the garrulous Notestein, “I was one of about 200 Alachua County nurserymen registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. We raise so many varieties because I always figured that with lots of ‘ponies in the stable,’ if one got sick another one could run.”
Notestein’s roots are deep in agriculture. His family emigrated from Alabama after the Civil War. Unable to shake the dirt, he was instrumental in establishing the first farmers market in Gainesville.
“I look for ways to derive economic opportunity from sunlight,” he says.
Marty Werts owns the northernmost citrus grove in Florida, near Melrose.
“We grow about 15 types of citrus organically on our five acres,” Werts says, “but mostly grapefruit. We sell to the Fresh Market and to University of Florida cafeterias.
Werts was looking for property to buy as an investment because his primary job is grounds superintendent at the university, but the care of his 300-plus trees has now become an intense “labor of love.”
How has he been able to operate a grove, even such a small grove, successfully so far north of the “freeze line?” After all, weather this winter has been difficult.
His grove, Werts explains, lies between two lakes and had irrigation in place when he bought it so his crops have not been significantly damaged. (In freezing weather, farmers spray their citrus with water, which freezes around the fruit and insulates the fruit from damage.)
Weather is not the citrus grower’s only enemy in Florida, however.
The $1.6 billion citrus industry is a mainstay of the Florida economy, but it is critically endangered and could disappear entirely within 5 to 10 years.
Several incurable bacterial agents are hammering the industry. Citrus canker disfigures trees and fruit, and citrus greening, discovered in Florida in 2005, causes fruit to become misshapen and bitter.
Florida is under U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantine as a result of the presence of citrus greening and the Asian citrus psyllid–a tiny, moth-like insect–that spreads the bacteria. It is illegal to move live citrus plants, plant parts, bud-wood or cuttings across state lines from Florida.
“On a one to ten scale of risk,” says University of Florida Horticultural Extension Agent Dan Culbert, “if citrus canker is a three, citrus greening is an imperfect ten.”
Niche Market – Herbs
James Steele began growing organic herbs as part of his crops on land near Melrose in 1989. Even though friends told him the public desire for organic food was just a fad, he thought people would prefer locally grown products, regardless of the organic label. In those days, he recalls, he was about the only person selling fresh herbs and vegetables.
“It’s a unique niche,” Steel says, who when he’s not tilling the soil and doctoring his herb nursery, is canning his own datil pepper jelly for sale online and at farmer’s markets.
Marge Powell of Callahan, is treasurer of the International Herb Association. She says there isn’t a reliable figure on the value of commercially raised herbs to the economy, but believes that it must be significant.
Niche Market – Christmas Trees
John and Cathie Gregory are retired teachers. For 29 years they have owned Unicorn Hill Christmas Tree Farm where they raise 5,500 trees on six of their 14 acres.
“We wanted land, and wanted it to pay for itself,” Gregory says. At first, they tried blueberries but that didn’t work out. Then, a University of Florida agronomist recommended Christmas trees. While their business has prospered, those owned by other Christmas tree farmers have not.
“A few years ago there were eight Christmas tree farms in the county and now there are only two.” Gregory says. “Several owners have retired and children see how much work is involved and don’t want to do it. Plus, the price of land and taxes has skyrocketed.”
Nevertheless, Gregory says that he sold out his entire crop of trees in 11 days in 2010.
Michael Songer, president of the Florida Christmas Tree Association, says it’s difficult to precisely estimate the value of Christmas tree agriculture locally because the growing time varies.
“We may sell a tree after three years, or wait until after six,” he says. But he estimates that with two active growers, Christmas tree cultivation contributes maybe $50,000 a year to the Alachua County economy.
“Buy Local” Helps Business
Alachua County Environmental Horticulture Extension Agent Wendy Wilber believes the “buy local” movement is responsible in part for the upsurge in small farms and farmers markets.
“When I came here in 1989, there was one farmers market,” Wilber says. “Now growers are responding to the desire for fresh, local produce. Everyone wins.”
Charlie Lybrand has managed the Gainesville farmers market for 15 years and also manages the three-year-old Tioga Center market. Lybrand, who is also a grower and a beekeeper, says the “buy local” movement is very strong because “you can meet the farmer face-to-face. Our markets draw people from all walks of society who want high quality, locally grown food.”
Maria Antela, who manages the High Springs farmer’s market, agrees.
“People come from 30 miles away to shop at our market,” she says. “We bring business to High Springs and meeting growers in person helps people understand that growing food isn’t easy…that it doesn’t grow in a package. A farmers market raises people’s consciousness.”
With increasing development, population growth, nearby ecological disasters and the appearance of exotic plant and animal diseases, the pressure on the area’s agricultural economy has rarely been greater.
But given the strong local commitment to agriculture and the billions in revenues it provides, Alachua County will continue to be dependent on the fruits of the land for many years to come.