By Heather McPherson
Food Editor, Orlando Sentinel
Preservation of Florida foodways — where science, culinary traditions and agricultural history intersect — is an underlying theme of the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education. The trait may not seem apparent in charts and statistics, but it is the foundation that feeds the need for research and development.
The state – better known for miles of sandy beaches, tourism and the space program – feeds the nation with massive crops from tomatoes to snap beans.
Exotic tropical fruits thrive in steamy south Florida. Herds of dairy and beef cows graze on the flat plains in the center of the state. Watermelons, blueberries and peanuts flourish in north Florida’s kinder terrain. The diversity of the peninsula’s agricultural abundance and its history can be a revelation to newcomers and natives.
When the Spanish claimed this land and brought horses, cattle and cowboy culture, they set the groundwork for the nation’s entire beef industry. Early American cattle originated from Europe, but came to the Americas through various routes. By the time cattle reached Texas and California from Mexico in the 1500s, Florida’s cattle industry was already emerging, according to University of South Florida research. Today, the state’s cattle industry is one of the 15 largest in the United States, according to the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. As a key calf-cow region the industry centers on birthing and raising calves.
With a coastline that spans more than 1,260 miles, not counting the long liquid ribbon of tributaries that jut in and out of the peninsula, Florida ranks among the top 12 U.S. states for fresh seafood production, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Florida fishermen catch more than 84 percent of the nation’s supply of grouper, pompano, mullet, stone crab, pink shrimp, spiny lobsters and Spanish mackerel. In addition, Florida’s marine fisheries provide more than 2.5 million recreational anglers with sport-fishing opportunities and more than 80,000 industry-related jobs, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Florida’s agricultural history is a diverse story that has been fashioned by many professionals who have long demonstrated a commitment to quality and a vision for the future. Since 1980, the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame has honored men and women who have made lasting contributions to agriculture in this state and to mentoring of our youth, who represent thefuture of agriculture in Florida. Names on a plaque can never tell the whole story. From every plot of the land has been tilled. every seed that has been planted, and every harvest that has been celebrated, perseverance of research and education has been an essential component.
From large to small farms, Florida’s agriculture industry has a more than $140 billion impact on the state’s economy and supports nearly a million jobs, according to the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.
In 2012, fellow food writers Pam Brandon, Katie Farmand and I set out to paint a modern portrait of the state’s agriculture that resulted in two cookbooks — “Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs, and Artisans” and “Good Catch: Recipes and Stories Celebrating the Best of Florida’s Waters.” During one of many trips around the state one farmer summed it up quite nicely: “We’re just borrowing the land from future generations.”
Working with the top researchers in the world, the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education is writing the next chapter for Florida agriculture. The times have changed but the goals have not: Sustainability, safety in the food supply, and stewardship of the land and water.