Southwest Florida has a long agricultural history and is a major player in the state when it comes to crops such as citrus and tomatoes. While the industry always has to deal with challenges that include development and disease, conditions are ripe for agriculture to not only remain strongly planted in the region but also experience continued growth.
“There’s seemingly one crisis after another, yet the industry survives and gets through it,” says Fritz Roka, associate professor of agricultural economics with the University of Florida at the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee.
Citrus greening will remain a major concern but continued research and focus on the problem will give growers more tools to fight the disease. By this point, state and federal regulators could potentially have approved an emergency exemption allowing bactericides used on other crops to be used on citrus to battle greening, according to Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, a trade association representing growers in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry, and Lee counties.
If the overall economy stays on its upward trajectory, expect labor shortages to remain an issue. “When the economy was slow and building had stopped in Florida, people moved back into agriculture,” says Gene McAvoy, regional vegetable extension agent for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
IN FIVE YEARS:
This will be do-or-die time for figuring out a way to overcome the issue of citrus greening. “If we don’t figure out something by this point, we may not have a citrus industry as we know it today in 10 years,” says Roka.
Hamel says this area has taken less of a hit than other parts of the state and has several strongly capitalized growers, so he expects the local citrus industry to survive the greening epidemic and emerge as an even bigger player in the state.
“I think our area is better prepared to be sustainable in citrus,” he says. “I think there’s going to be a very strong effort to replant trees in the next five years.” Those will replace trees lost to both greening and citrus canker.
IN 10 YEARS:
Expect farms to take major advantage of technology, using things such as satellite images, drones and infrared technology to monitor crops and pinpoint problems. “Right now every acre of crop land in the state that grows fruits or vegetables has a scout who drives around looking for disease and nutrient deficiencies,” says McAvoy.
IN 20 YEARS:
Hamel expects the number of acres producing citrus in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties to have grown from 125,000 acres in 2015 to 140,000 acres. “I don’t think we’re totally going to be greening free, but through science and technology we’ll be able to sustain the industry and grow,” he says. GB