Agriculture means business in the state of Florida. It is the state’s 2nd largest economic driver and the top industry in times of economic downturn. According to a recent report from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida’s 47,500 farms contribute 137 billion to our economy every year, export more than $4 billion in goods to 164 nations, and supports 1.6 million jobs which accounts for just under 20% of all employment in the state.
Agriculture is no less important in Lake County. In fact, much of the history and rural identity of our community is tied to agricultural roots. Turn of the Century Lake County was known worldwide for its record crops of peaches, tomatoes, watermelon, and of course, citrus. Citrus production in Lake County peaked in the 1960s with just over 100k acres in groves. At that time there was more citrus being grown in Lake County Florida than in any other county in the United States. A series of three killing frost in the 1980s made it hard for many citrus producers to stay in business. Adding further to the pain felt by the citrus industry were diseases like Citrus Canker and more recently Huanglongbing, better known as Citrus Greening, which have caused devastating losses. Finally, competition from growers in Mexico and Brazil, and a decrease in consumer demand for orange juice have further hurt the citrus industry.
Of course, citrus isn’t the only crop grown in Lake County, even if it is our most famous. There are currently just shy of 150,000 acres in agricultural production, which is just under a quarter of the land mass of the entire county, of that, only ten thousand acres are currently planted in citrus groves. So, what of the other 140 thousand acres? Much of it, approximately 80 thousand acres, is used for grazing livestock, specifically beef cattle. Florida is considered a cow-calf state which means we typically keep brood cows and raise calves for the market.
Lake County is also home to a budding peach and blueberry industry, two alternative fruit crops which have become more popular with the decline in citrus production and lend themselves well to agritourism ventures. We also have several fresh market vegetable producers, ranging from large scale commercial farms to smaller CSA type farms. In addition to growing fruit, veggies, and beef, Lake County is home to a thriving ornamental horticulture industry. This segment produces plants not so much for consumption as enjoyment, beautification, and ecological benefits.
So, what is the financial impact of all this agricultural activity on the local economy? If we take the entire food system, that is everything involved in getting that seed to your plate, and separate out just agricultural production, the segments of the industry directly involved in growing and harvesting crops and livestock, we find that the annual value-added output of agricultural production alone is 481.49 million dollars. We can also look at the food manufacturing part of the food system which would include impact from places like juice processing plants and canning facilities and we find that segment has an annual impact of 274.87 million dollars. Finally, if we want to include the biggest portion of the food system, food distribution, which would include food distribution centers, grocery stores, and restaurants we can add another 1,045.53 million annually.
The food system doesn’t just keep the economy moving, it also keeps people employed. In Lake County alone we find that 6,900 people have jobs tied to ag production with another 1,700-finding employment in food manufacturing. If we want to take a broad look and expand the definition of agriculture to include that final distribution step, we can include another 15,725 people who work to put food on your table. Taken all together just under 25% of the workforce in Lake County hold jobs with a direct connection to some part of the food system.
Setting aside the economic value of agriculture, it is also important to also acknowledge the less tangible benefits that agriculture provides to our community. Those 150,000 acres aren’t used by the farmer exclusively, they provide habitat for native wildlife and a place for migratory birds to rest. They serve as greenspace for surface water to recharge and allow for carbon sequestration. Land in agricultural production also allows all Lake County residents to enjoy the beauty of a rural life.
Yes, agriculture means business in Florida and in Lake County. But it also means an abundance of locally grown sweet corn and even sweeter watermelons, it means the ability to take your kids to pick their own blueberries, and it means an abundance of pastures for wildlife to use as habitat.