On the first episode of the Food Is Our Middle Name podcast, we sit down with Bob Hochmuth to discuss Florida’s deeply rooted history in agriculture. He shares the breadth and depth of Florida’s agricultural industry.
UF/IFAS ag facts booklet: https://branding.ifas.ufl.edu/downloads/uploads/Extension%20Brochures/IFAS/Florida-Ag-Fast-Facts-Booklet.pdf
USDA's agriculture in the Sunshine State: https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2019/10/15/agriculture-sunshine-state#:~:text=Among%20Florida's%20top%20agricultural%20products,)%2C%20second%20only%20to%20California.
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Florida ag overview and statistics: https://www.fdacs.gov/Agriculture-Industry/Florida-Agriculture-Overview-and-Statistics
To learn more about UF/IFAS and how food IS our middle name, visit: ifas.ufl.edu/food/
Tory Moore [00:00:05]
Welcome to the Food is Our Middle name podcast. I'm your host, Tory Moore and today we're asking what's the deal with Florida agriculture? While Florida is mostly known for theme parks, gorgeous beaches and citrus, there's a whole lot more to Florida and the food it produces. Agriculture is the second largest economic driver for the state, only behind tourism. So here to share more with us about Florida agricultue is UF/IFAS Extension Agent Bob Hochmuth. Welcome Bob, we're excited to have you.
Bob Hochmuth [00:00:35]
Excited to be here. And good to see you.
Tory Moore [00:00:37]
Yes, good to see you. So here on the podcast, we have this little game we play to help people get to know our guests. And this is how we kick off each episode. So I'm going to ask you a series of fun food questions. There are no wrong answers, but the goal is just to answer as many as you can in about a 15 seconds amount of time. Are you ready?
Bob Hochmuth [00:00:54]
Tory Moore [00:00:54]
All right, here we go. Favorite food?
Bob Hochmuth [00:00:57]
Pizza and ice cream.
Tory Moore [00:00:59]
Coffee or tea?
Bob Hochmuth [00:01:00]
Tory Moore [00:01:01]
Food you hate?
Bob Hochmuth [00:01:02]
I'm not a big fan of Swiss chard or arugula.
Tory Moore [00:01:05]
Okay. Favorite meal of the day?
Bob Hochmuth [00:01:08]
Tory Moore [00:01:08]
Sweet or Spicy.
Bob Hochmuth [00:01:10]
Tory Moore [00:01:11]
Awesome. Good job. Good job. Good job. So the next question was, what is your favorite ice cream? And I know we ran out of time, but since it's your favorite food, I want to hear what your ice cream order would be.
Bob Hochmuth [00:01:21]
I would say if I could have it, it would be Butterfinger.
Tory Moore [00:01:25]
Yeah, that's a good one. I'm not a big chocolate fan, but, you know, I can get by on pretty much any type of ice cream.
Bob Hochmuth [00:01:31]
Tory Moore [00:01:33]
So thanks for playing along. But let's get down to our interview and talk a little bit about Florida agriculture. So you are a UF/IFAS Regional Specialized Extension agent, which is a really long title, but your specialty is in vegetable production. So tell me what a day in your shoes is like?
Bob Hochmuth [00:01:49]
Well, I've got the responsibility of working with farmers in the vegetable industry in the Suwannee Valley area. And so the fun days for me are working directly with them on their own farm and helping them to to solve some particular problem, whether it's a water or nutrient management issue that we can help them with or are trying to identify some pests that might be involved in the in the crop and helping them to come up with solutions for those particular troubleshooting problems. In addition to that, here at the Research and Education Center, the NFREC Suwannee Valley Research and Education Center, we have a lot of field work here as well, where we put in research trials and demonstrations, and we can have farmers come to the center and be able to see some of the most current updated sort of cutting edge technology research that would be going on in their particular community. So we might have field days for me and watermelons and other colleagues here might have one for corn or peanuts and other other specialty crops as well. So it's sort of a two pronged approach for me. One here at the center working with research trials and the second one out on farms working directly with the growers.
Tory Moore [00:03:01]
So you've mentioned agriculture in the Suwannee Valley. Where is the Suwannee Valley in Florida? Can you describe that to our listeners?
Bob Hochmuth [00:03:08]
Yeah, we use the term Suwannee Valley here. It's not really a valley, but it's a region of Florida. And I would say the two major urban areas that people would be familiar with would be Gainesville to the east and Tallahassee to the West. It's not entirely all the way up to those two cities necessarily, but we're talking about that region in there that sort of is represented by the bend of Florida from Peninsula Florida heading out to the panhandle, but not in either one of those yet. So that's the that's the region. We call it the Suwannee Valley, because the Suwannee River is is central to that to that area. So it comes across the Georgia line, the Suwannee River down to the Gulf of Mexico. And there's agriculture, prime agricultural land on both sides, east and west of the Suwannee River.
Tory Moore [00:04:00]
Nice. So I think it's safe to say every day is probably quite different, right?
Bob Hochmuth [00:04:04]
Yeah. It's a really, really interesting job because of that. And things change so fast in agriculture, the adoption of technology, new crops. We have a lot of work being done on new and emerging crops that maybe have some potential in the future. So you're absolutely correct. It is really interesting in that no day is even remotely similar to the previous one or the next one coming up. So that keeps it fun.
Tory Moore [00:04:29]
Yeah. And again, speaking of that, variety Florida’s agriculture industry is really, really diverse. I think when most people think about Florida, if they think about food, they might think of orange juice, oranges. But tell us about Florida agriculture and what else we have here in the state.
Bob Hochmuth [00:04:45]
It is a huge and diverse industry. There's probably close to 300 different commodities that are that are grown, some on a large scale and some on a very, very small scale. But in terms of rankings within the United States, Florida is number one in crops like sugar cane, for instance, on the agronomic grow crop, kind of a seen, but in fruits and vegetables we have we're number one in cucumbers, watermelons, bell peppers. So you might be surprised that we're also among the top states in terms of cattle. And we're also we have a number of different commercial fishing species, both shell and fin fish, stone crabs and spiny lobster and grouper. Just for instance, we also have an emerging industry on the Cedar Key area for things like clams and becoming a very high producer for for clams. We're also number one in terms of production of ornamental fish. So that's a that's an interesting one. Most of those are things that we're eating, but we also produce a number of other commodities that that are not necessarily eaten, but also really important in our Florida agriculture system. And they would include things like landscaping plants, palms, and broadleaf evergreen crops. We also have a high production capacity for aquatic plants. And then the other one that kind of is hidden a little bit in there on the ag side, although it represents 40% of the land mass is the forest lands. So most of that is for timber sales. So let's just give you that gives you a little bit of an idea of the of the diversity going on here in Florida. Certainly when you think about Florida, you think about citrus, and we are still the number one state in terms of oranges and trying to hang on to that capacity with grapefruit as well. Although there are some struggles in our in our citrus industry with some diseases that have provided some tough conditions for our citrus producers.
Tory Moore [00:06:46]
Right. Right. And we're going to talk about some of those challenges later, not only for citrus, but for farmers in general. But earlier, I mentioned, you know, that Florida's agriculture industry is one of the top revenue generators for the state only usually behind tourism. So how do those two interact? I'm thinking of when COVID hit, and I know some people are probably just so tired of hearing about COVID, but, you know, our tourism industry really tanked here in Florida. People couldn't get here or theme parks were closed. Where did ag stand as far as, you know, the economy in maybe keeping Florida going?
Bob Hochmuth [00:07:20]
You know, during those periods of time when when the tourism industry does struggle a little bit, as you've as you've mentioned, I think agriculture is just steady. And so there's periods of time when it actually becomes the driving force of the economy here in Florida and and actually becomes the number one industry when when tourism has challenges like we had both in the post-9-11 era and as well with with COVID. So agriculture is is able to just stay consistently strong during that whole period. And we have amazing capacity of our of our farmers here, and they need to be able to supply food to the rest of the country and in some cases, to the rest of the world. I look at it as just a steadying force in our agricultural economy and oftentimes becoming the number one industry and the driver of our economy here in Florida.
Tory Moore [00:08:13]
Right. Right. So with all these crops we're talking about this diversity. I mean, there's there's so much happening. I think, again, when you drive through Florida, you often see rows and rows of maybe, you know, cookie cutter looking homes. But how are we able to produce so much? Where are these crops grown? I mean, there's got to be quite a bit of farmland out there somewhere, right?
Bob Hochmuth [00:08:33]
There is. And it tends to still be in concentrated regions. But we have agriculture from the furthest tip of South Florida all the way to the to the far west and in the panhandle. We have agriculture throughout the throughout the state without without question. The further south you go, the more important it becomes. We're sort of the winter producer for a lot of fruits and vegetables during that period of time. Number one in the country in that particular regard. So because of the southern exposure of those of the state in the mild climate in the wintertime, we can produce a number of crops where nowhere else in the country are they able to quite, quite do that. The challenges that were where people maybe have lived in an urban area their entire life and are not familiar with agriculture, not familiar with the slow moving vehicles on the roads and the agriculture, things that come along with ag production in the area, that if they're not used to that, sometimes it does become a strain on relationships between urbanization in the middle of a of a big agricultural area. So learning to live together and understanding that sometimes you're going to have a tractor going down the road with a piece of equipment on it that you need to be we need to be conscientious of, that that would be the types of challenges that that happen where people just are not familiar with the kinds of things that go on in agriculture, whether it's livestock or our food production in terms of crops either either way. However, there is a very interesting dynamic that happens in that sort of that urban and rural interface where. Where perhaps a farmer on the perimeter of an urban area can become a become a farmer that supplies specialty crops to the community. And those might be through community supported agriculture type of a farm arrangement. They may also have direct farm sales or take products to the farmers markets. And so oftentimes the profitability there is favorable because you're selling directly to a consumer and they want fresh products and are oftentimes willing to pay a little bit more for that product than we would if we were going to wholesale ship it to somewhere else in the in the country. So it's a it is an interesting dynamic with with plenty of challenges, but also with plenty of opportunities.
Tory Moore [00:10:58]
Yeah. I think and I think we're seeing some of that landscape shift a little bit. I know UF/IFAS does research on that, but I think people get excited about having a local farmer that they can build a relationship with. Like you said, in community supported agriculture or CSAs. They can give some feedback about what the farmer's growing and what they like, what they don't like. I think that it's it's really, really we have a lot of really big farms. We have some of those smaller producers and the landscape has changed a little bit over the years and people are getting really into where their food comes from, which is exciting to see because it benefits everybody, big guys and the little guys, right?
Bob Hochmuth [00:11:32]
Yeah. And in terms of the total numbers there, it's interesting that we we have somewhere between 47 and 48,000 farms here. It's been pretty consistent over the last five or six years. So that's the total number of farms. And of that, there's probably around 80% of those that would be classified as a small farm. So so we actually have, you know, a smaller percentage that are producing the majority of the crop. It sort of follows a little bit of that 80-20 rule that oftentimes happens where we have 80% of the farms that are smaller than maybe producing something less than 20% of the product, whereas we have the other 20% that are that are on a larger scale, and they're the ones that are really supplying the food outside of Florida as well as inside of Florida, but have the capacity for, you know, for large productivity.
Tory Moore [00:12:21]
Right. So how long has Florida been a major ag state? I mean, and again, I know the numbers change over the years, but this is and is a new to the state, is it not?
Bob Hochmuth [00:12:32]
No, it's it's really not. If you go back in in time, you know, the the parts of the industry like sugar cane and cattle and and even some of the vegetable crops have been produced here in Florida for for a number of years, especially on the cattle side, there was sort of a free range time frame when when you would drive cattle from one part of the state to the other and put them on a on a boat and ship to Cuba and other other places. So agriculture itself is not new. I think the thing that probably is new is this is the diversification. Certainly in the end, crops and the ornamental industry, for instance, that that area has boomed with population.
Tory Moore [00:13:16]
So what about Florida makes agriculture able to thrive here? Right. Why are we that powerhouse that we are for agriculture, not just for diversity, but also quantity that we produce?
Bob Hochmuth [00:13:28]
Well, we have a couple of things that are going for us. We certainly have the climate that is favorable for much of the year. So we're not going to have hard winters that are going to take us out of production during a major part of the year. So we we typically have something that's growing in this state somewhere all the time, 12 months of the year. So the climate is very favorable for us to produce a wide variety of crops. The market demands an abundant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially in the wintertime, which plays into our favor. There's not very many other states that can do that. California, Texas and Florida perhaps would be the ones that immediately come to mind. So there's an opportunity for the market there. The other thing that is in our favor is we we we have a high quality water supply in most of the state so that we we we have an abundant supply of water, although it is becoming challenged as we move forward to be able to share that abundant, valuable resource between the urbanization and the people that need it and the industry that needs it farms that need it. But but we do have high quality water in much of the state that helps us to be able to to to grow those crops over that over that long period of time. During the during the years. So those are the couple of things that come to mind because of the market opportunities that we have, especially early in the season, January through May. Let's say that there's not a lot of places that have fresh fruits and vegetables during that period of time. So our industry is mostly driven towards the fresh market industry.
Tory Moore [00:15:14]
I'm going to interrupt you for a moment. When you say fresh market, we mean picked off of a crop vine or, you know, our bush plant and sent straight effectively. You know, I know it has some stops, but your grocery store versus being processed into something else, right?
Bob Hochmuth [00:15:27]
Yes. Yeah. And I'll give you maybe a simple example. Like cucumbers, we can harvest fresh cucumbers and ship them all the way across the country wherever they need to go without any actual processing. We're going to keep them clean and follow the food safety principles and so forth in comparison to something where we would turn that cucumber into a pickle. Right. Okay. So we're not doing those kinds of processing very much in terms of freezing and and and pickling and those kinds of things. But because we have the opportunity and the advantage to be able to sell at a little higher price in the fresh market, that's that's what drives a lot of it. So you don't see a lot of processing here on the vegetable side. Certainly the processing on the citrus side for juice as a as a has a whole different story There is processing there. But most of our vegetable industry is for fresh market.
Tory Moore [00:16:21]
Okay. Okay. And that's, like you said, definitely unique. And then that that hitting that winter market, I think is huge because if anything, I think correct me if I'm wrong, but I think we slow down sometimes from a production standpoint in the summer because the heat, the humidity, I mean, if anything, that's when we slow down, when other areas of the country are ramping up a little bit. Right?
Bob Hochmuth [00:16:41]
Yeah, very, very true. And many of our important commodities, however, you have in the northern part of the state here where I'm located. Agronomic crops like corn and peanuts and soybeans to some extent. But those are the crops that are grown over the summer. So we're going to be harvesting field corn, for instance. When I say corn, I mean in this instance, field corn that would be used for grain, for livestock feed and that type of thing. And those crops are harvested in the late summer and then peanuts in the fall. So it's circled back to the thing where that just depends on what the month of the year is. You're going to have major agricultural production of something. It just happens to be highly variable depending on where you are in the state and the time of the year that that you want to get something out of the field.
Tory Moore [00:17:29]
Right. But like you said, unlike other states, it literally never stops. Yeah, Yeah. So how has this maybe changed over the years, the production or, you know, how has the ag landscape changed in Florida?
Bob Hochmuth [00:17:44]
I think we've got, you know, more diversification. So we continually are intensifying into other kinds of specialty crops. But I think the technology is what has been amazing, especially in the last 5 to 10 years there there's technology that's helping the farmers to become more efficient, be able to be a better steward of both water and fertilizer. So as the thing that comes immediately to mind is the adoption of technology, whether it's an auto steer type of tractor or so of moisture sensors that help us to be able to look into the root system of the farm basically, and determine how much water is in that root zone. When do we need to irrigate? How long do we need to irrigate some of those kinds of things? Just just a lot of technology that's that that is being adopted by my farmers across the state.
Tory Moore [00:18:41]
Right. You know, especially here at UF/IFAS we do research on developing this technology to help farmers meet challenges, as you've mentioned. So let's talk through some of the challenges that farmers face. I know some of these aren't exclusive to Florida, but we'll focus on Florida. So first, you mentioned soil, water sensors, among other things. So water talked to me a little bit about water. You mentioned it earlier. We do have a abundant, fresh, high quality supply. But how is that a challenge sometimes for farmers?
Bob Hochmuth [00:19:09]
Yeah, there's there's there's still a limitation. Even though we have an abundant supply of high quality water, there's still a limit to that. And urban areas require a lot of water and agriculture requires a lot of water. And there's also segments of the industry that that utilize a lot of water as well. So it's a high value resource that we have that we all share. And so within the agricultural community, we are working a lot with helping farmers to to make sure that we're making the most efficient use of that water as possible. And then things like soil moisture sensors and other ways to to manage the irrigation. So we're not we're not guessing as much as maybe as we used to. We know exactly how much when to start the irrigation and then how long to run the irrigation. So the competition for that particular natural resource I think is going to be a a challenge as we move forward in the future. This, this issue is not going to go away. There's going to get more and more intense competition in those areas. The interesting thing about this region of where I am in the Suwannee Valley, there is more springs in this region than there is anywhere in the world. And so we want to be able to try to protect those springs with the agriculture that's going on in that community so people can enjoy the recreation that the springs bring to those communities. So I think water is going to just be one of the major, major issues moving forward for us to be able to to make the most efficient use of that particular natural resource as we can. I think the next challenge that comes to mind is that we do stick out into this ocean and Gulf area here and are highly vulnerable to invasive species that would come into into our area. And they can come in in a number of different ways. You know, there's a lot of shipping from other parts of the world that come in and out of ports here in Florida. That that's one example of of how something might come into the state and make Florida vulnerable to what we call invasive species. So there's a lot of different things that are brought into Florida that are new and only a few of them become really negatively impactful. And so. that’s where we start talking about them being invasive. So over the last couple of hundred years, I think the estimate is at least 50,000 invasive species have been brought, both of both plants and animals into the United States. And it cost a lot of money to try to eradicate something. When we find it, we don't want it to get away from us. We want to be able to eradicate it, if we can, in a small pocket as quickly as we can. But some of the more, more common ones that you might might think of. Now, the citrus canker was an invasive disease that came in and created a major problem to our citrus industry. And there were hundreds of thousands of dollars spent trying to deal with that when it first happened. And then in central and south Florida, the Brazilian pepper tree is another invasive weed, basically, but a woody species that creates problems. And then more current would be the Burmese python. So all of those are examples of invasive species that that move into the area. But when we get something that's impactful to our ag industry, it really needs to be dealt with. And then I think the next one and sort of as a little bit related to the fact that a lot of our production here requires hand harvesting, whether it's on the fruits or the vegetable side of things and even in other commodities as well. But labor is a universal challenge across the United States. But we need we need labor to to to maintain our production of our fresh fruits and vegetables. And that's becoming more and more difficult. When I grew up, I didn't grow up in Florida, but where I grew up, the young teenagers, you know, you were you were going to work on a farm somewhere. And we just don't have enough of of of that labor force to be able to supply the agricultural industry. But that's universal across the country. It's not only a problem here in Florida.
Tory Moore [00:23:13]
I know some commodities are harvested by large machines. Right. And it can be done not quickly. I don't want to undermine the work it takes. But, you know, in bass. Right. But a lot of our crops are truly hand-picked, like blueberries. Every individual blueberry is picked by a person, right. And brought to you just like strawberries. And that takes a lot of labor and skilled labor, too, because I know if I was out there, it would take me forever. I’ve been u-picking and it takes me quite a long time for me to get my little bucket full to bring home. Right. So not only it is very time intensive, like you said, for for some of our fruit crops.
Bob Hochmuth [00:23:49]
Yeah, absolutely. I mean blueberries would, would represent a crop that there is a lot of hand harvesting but there is some machinery that's been developed for that industry to help, you know, take a little bit of that pressure off of it, depending on where the how the blueberries are going to be used, whether they're fresh market perhaps are going to be frozen and so forth. So blueberries, we would do both. But if you use the example like strawberries, they're 100% hand harvested watermelons, cantaloupes, bell peppers, cucumbers, all of those would require hand harvesting. And for the most part, the citrus industry is the same, is the same way. But I think what we're seeing there is a lot of research on robotics and and how that could potentially play a role in in harvesting. So there is a there's a lot with our agricultural engineers that are working on those types of things just to be able to mechanize. We we see it every day where maybe traditionally there was a high dependance or 100% dependance on labor. There is work being done in certain crops. And and if you think about that, robotics harvesting the strawberry based on the color. Right. You know, it's just it's it's incredible to think about the possibility that that that that brings.
Tory Moore [00:25:05]
Right because they have to be harvested just for it to you know give the say they have to be harvested ripe in fact, that they don't ripen off the bush. Is that correct?
Bob Hochmuth [00:25:13]
Yeah. Now you're going to be you're going to be harvesting a strawberry that is essentially entirely red and highly perishable. So so not only do you like the machinery to pick out a red one versus a pink one versus a white one, that, you know, I mean, that that would be relatively easy to do, perhaps. But now we've got to figure out how are we going to actually take that strawberry that is relatively delicate off of that plant and and put it somewhere to add. But that's the kind of thing that there is a lot of progress actually being made in those in those areas. So we're seeing that type of technology being developed by our, by our engineers to be able to try to help in those issues where we where we can make some mechanization to help us with that, with that issue as we move move forward. So it's a fascinating thing. There's there's just all kinds of interesting equipment technologies that are available now. If you're running, if you're running a sprayer down a citrus orchard and you've got a couple of trees mission that they can sense that there's no tree there. So we stopped the sprayer. I mean, the sprayer stops itself and then picks it back up when it has a has another tree. If it's a big tree, it gets more. If it's a little tree, it gets less. So that that type of thing has already been being adopted in our in our area.
Tory Moore [00:26:33]
Mm hmm. And dare I say the word hurricane. Right. So, you know, aside from our normal challenging weather conditions, then we have sometimes really active hurricane seasons. And I'm going to knock on my desk here and knock on wood. But that adds a whole additional challenge, right?
Bob Hochmuth [00:26:50]
Absolutely. And, you know, the closer you are to the perimeter of the state, the more devastating that is likely to be. So some of these strategies where industries are being developed or are sort of landing and developing and the internal part of the state where that might be a little bit less of a risk. But not only do we have the hurricane issues from a weather standpoint, but we have extremes like extreme dry periods, extreme wet periods that are associated with it. And then the humidity just the just the high humidity over that summer period here that provide perfect conditions for a lot of pests, a lot of diseases that need that constant moisture. So there there are a number of crops that are really difficult to grow in the summer here because of the of that of the intense climate. And we and we certainly see more extremes in this in the weather events.
Tory Moore [00:27:48]
Right, Right. So another thing I want to talk about is the concept of family farms. So we've talked about, you know, some smaller firms and some of the larger farms and the different challenges they face. But tell me about the I guess, the landscape here in Florida as far as family farms or are these larger corporate farms?
Bob Hochmuth [00:28:06]
Yeah, I think a lot of times when somebody sees a big farming operation, they might automatically assume that it's some type of a corporate entity outside of Florida that's doing that. But in reality, the majority of the the vast majority of our farms are still owned and operated by family farms. So there's very little of the sort of the corporate type of type of farming in the area. I'm not saying that there isn't any, but for the most part we still have families that are multigenerational here in Florida that are operating these farms. Almost all if you take the just the percentage of that 47,000 farms that are in Florida, you have a very small percentage of the of that number that would actually be in that corporate farm, kind of a kind of an entity. However, we do see changes in land ownership. So we do see some of that moving into our agricultural areas. And in some cases it might it might be folks that are seeing the future, the ability to maybe urbanize an area and take it out of agriculture and put it into into communities or things like that. And if if we owned a 500 acre farm and somebody came came to us with an offer like that, it's really difficult for these farmers to say, you know, to say, no, I want to continue to farm. It's it's in their blood. They don't know any other way, and they're committed to do it. But it is becoming really difficult for the farms to maintain that farm, that that land in agriculture. So we do see that that strain coming. And there's when you get that outside entity investors that come in, it makes it it makes it difficult for them to maintain that. The majority of our farmers are the average age of our farmers here in Florida is about 59 years old. And so one of the other things that we worry a little bit about is the next generation. Are they as the next generation, going to be as equally as interested in the current or the previous generations that have their farm, that land? So we do see a little bit of a change there, you know, trying to decrease the average age of our farms. But it is a bit of a tough transition in some cases to be able to maintain that multi-generational nature of the of the farms.
Tory Moore [00:30:24]
Right. And I think sometimes we see those exact two things you tied together where not only is there a temptation right, to sell the farm and someone might be in the phase of retiring and maybe the kids don't want to take it over and it feels like a natural fit, even though, you know, it might not be what everybody wants, but that sometimes we see some of that happening and the industry consolidating a little bit.
Bob Hochmuth [00:30:48]
It's to our benefit to keep this land in agriculture. And I want to go back to the water piece, the recharge in our aquifer here is coming from the agricultural land. The first thing that we need to realize is that under us is a is a huge what we call the Florida aquifer, and it's a limestone aquifer that that holds the water. So when we use the term recharge, we're we're talking about instances when there's tropical storms or heavy rainfall events and things like that that. The land, the soil cannot hold. That water then percolates down through and recharges the aquifer after the soils filter that water as it moves down into the aquifer. So we need to have huge open land, which in many cases is used as farmland to be able to provide that opportunity for the rainfall to recharge the the aquifer. If we if we use that land for other purposes, if we're going to have roads and paved areas and houses and things like that, then a lot of the water in that situation does not run into the ground. It runs off of that area and now we have a different issue to deal with. So agricultural lands are super important for us to be able to recharge the Florida aquifer underneath us. So we want to be able to maintain those open agricultural lands to be able to It's an important piece of the cycle. It's just a normal cycle. It's always been that way. And so we're trying to do several different things with that land at the same time. But agricultural lands are super important for for recharge of our aquifers.
Tory Moore [00:32:29]
Right, Right. So one last challenge I want to discuss or maybe opportunity. Right. You talked a little bit earlier briefly when we were talking about processing, you know, about food safety regulations and ensuring that there are the food supply that farmers are providing us to safe and abundant. So can you talk a little bit about what that looks like for a farmer to ensure that they're getting a safe product in consumers hands?
Bob Hochmuth [00:32:55]
Yes. I think, you know, farmers traditionally have always followed relatively good practices in terms of providing safe food, but today that is much more highly required or regulated, both at the federal level and also by the folks that are going to buy that particular commodity. So today, for a form to be able to sell, I'll use the example that I'm familiar with. In the case of watermelons, we're going to harvest the watermelons, but we have to be able to document every step of the process from from planting to harvesting and handling when we get it to the packing house, to be able to be be able to make sure that that product is going to arrive from a food safety standpoint and safe condition to the consumer. It's a major extra expense to the farms because the documentation is is very, very significant. And so oftentimes we have to have people that may be brought into the farm, that have that set of skills to be able to help, you know, to maintain the food safety program. So that is an area that has intensified. I'd like to be able to think that without additional cost to make sure that the consumer is going to be delivered, safe food is going to be able to be returned to the farmer. But in some cases, they they're not able to manage that or that way that it would seem fair to to me. But it is a big new expense, very complicated, very document heavy for the farmer to be able to do that. But the farmers have stepped up to that challenge and and it's just become the normal part of doing business. Now, if you're going to be selling especially fresh fruits and vegetables, not all agricultural commodities, if it's going to be a livestock food, it's a whole different circumstance. But we talk about the majority of our agricultural products, fresh fruits and vegetables. There is a there is a food safety program in place that assures the consumer that the farmers are doing everything that they can to make sure that they're supplying a safe, safe product.
Tory Moore [00:34:59]
Right. So we've talked a lot about how, you know, the challenges farmers have and how they've overcome them, maybe by their own effort or UF/IFAS research or research elsewhere. But what can general Floridians or consumers do — regular people even visiting Florida, they can support Florida agriculture.
Bob Hochmuth [00:35:20]
So when you go to the grocery store, you can certainly look for the Fresh From Florida labels. And that's a program that's run by the Florida Department of Agriculture and helps you to identify that that product is, in fact, grown here in Florida. Fresh from Florida would be the would be the label that you'd be looking for. I think that in addition to that, you just want to read labels, period. And if it doesn't happen to be in the Fresh From Florida program, but you can identify that, yeah, this was produced in Florida that that certainly helps to helps to strengthen and stabilize, make sure that we have a stabilized economic driver in agriculture for the state. On a local level, I think it's important that people get to know what's out there within a mile or two or ten. Are there opportunities for them to go to a u-pick operation? Are there opportunities to buy things directly from a farm or from a local farm stand? There are unique marketing methods that forms put together called community supported agriculture, where there's almost like a subscription type of an opportunity for folks to to to buy to buy a subscription and know that every week they're going to get a basket of of the of a variety of crops from that particular farm. So I think getting to know what's around and available is another piece that that the the consumer can identify with and experience that to go out and find the u-pick operations that are close to them and and do those kinds of things. I'm a believer in that myself and especially for blueberries. We have a freezer that we try to fill every year with blueberries, and we pick the local blueberries ourselves to be able to to do that. So there's there are definitely a lot of opportunities along that way. But just to be conscientious and have the intent when we go to the grocery store to figure out where where are these products coming from. And can I do more to support to support our Florida farmers that are at times the the backbone of our of our economy here in Florida? And if we don't you know, if we see that reduction in the strength of the agricultural industry, then I feel like there's a lot of dominos that that are not positive.
Tory Moore [00:37:40]
Right. Yeah. And again, like you said, connecting with your local farmer and getting out there, I mean, it's also fun, right? So, I mean, going to u-pick gathering fresh fruit or vegetables. I mean, it's also a great way to spend a nice sort of day.
Bob Hochmuth [00:37:53]
So yeah, it's and it's probably hard to find your entire grocery budget that way, right? Yeah, We still have the other the majority of our of our grocery bill that's going to come going to have to come from our more traditional purchasing methods. But still when we're doing that, there's still an opportunity to make sure that we're supporting our Florida farmers.
Tory Moore [00:38:13]
That's right. Exactly. So before we go, we're going to start wrapping up. But what is the one thing that you want people to know or remember about Florida agriculture.
Bob Hochmuth [00:38:25]
To make sure that they understand the capacity is incredible for our farm community. And it and in fact, it has to continue to be even more incredible to be able to supply the food for the increasing population in the world. And our our Florida farmers and other farmers in the U.S. are going to be up to that task. And I think technology is going to help them to be able to to continue to make strides forward in that regard. But we've got a lot of increased production that has to happen somewhere. And and and Florida is going to be a part of that scenery. So I think just the amazing capacity and the ability of a farmer to adapt to new technology and adopt a change to to do things that are favorable to the farm and and also favorable to the farm food system. I think that's the piece that I would like to make sure that people understood.
Tory Moore [00:39:20]
Yeah, it's inspiring without a doubt. And and like we said, you know, I for us in big state, but it's incredible the amount of food the state produces on relatively you know, so little really. And especially with the number of people moving here and so many other strong industries we do have around the state. So it's impressive without a doubt. And I think sometimes something people aren't aware of. So I hope they they learn a little bit more today. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your knowledge with us.
Bob Hochmuth [00:39:47]
Yeah, very happy to be able to have that opportunity. Support your Florida farmer.
Tory Moore [00:39:51]
Yes, indeed. Thank you so much. All right. That's it for today's episode of The Food is our Middle Name podcast. To learn more about Florida agriculture by the numbers and what we discussed today, check out the episode notes.