Giving the Florida Economy a Push
Our potential economic advantages over other states lie in our remarkable natural resources and tropical climate. No other state has an Everglades, only Alaska has more miles of coastline, and we’re among the nation’s leading producers of winter crops.
What converts these advantages into a competitive edge are our human resources – smart, well-trained people who have a knack for seeing the future and the courage to take a risk.
The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension – the folks who have historically brought you canning lessons, planting advice and 4-H tomato clubs – employs hundreds of such big-picture seers and doers.
Here are seven ways they’ll try to give the economy that push this year:
1. Grow Agritourism
Florida’s largest industry is tourism. Its second largest is agriculture. Extension is marrying the two, giving farmers the regulatory and business know-how to host weddings, run U-pick operations and corn mazes, launch restaurants and specialty shops on their property, and welcome visitors for tours. Success means visitors spend more in our state, and more mom-and-pop farms stay viable. The 2012 agricultural census reports nearly a 40 percent increase in agritourism receipts in Florida in five years, but we’re way behind other states and need to do more.
2. Grow a Research Park
UF/IFAS Extension has been a champion for a research park in St. Lucie County. St. Lucie and surrounding counties produce nearly $700 million in agricultural products annually. But so much more money could be kept in the local economy if locals could process produce instead of shipping it out of state. The area has the potential to become a leader in converting plants to fuel. The park could be the demonstration site for operations such as shrimp farming to supply local hotels. Extension helped establish a vision for three million square feet of research, commercial and office space to support 12,000 new jobs. Again, we’re playing catch-up with other states that are well into efforts to make food a centerpiece of an innovation economy.
3. Build Artificial Reefs
Extension gets grants and organizes efforts to build underwater ecosystems. Healthy, expanded reefs mean more people flocking to our coasts to board fishing charters, sail, dive, dine, buy bait, stay in hotel rooms, snap up souvenirs and otherwise leave a wake of dollars in coastal communities.
The UF/IFAS Taylor County Extension office does not have a specific estimate of the payoff from its plans to install 96 one-ton concrete reefs off the coast of Keaton Beach. However, a Panhandle-area study estimated a $131 return for every $1 invested in reef construction in that region.
4. Launch a Food Incubator
UF/IFAS is working with Collier County officials on establishing a food business incubator. With IFAS expertise and county support, agricultural entrepreneurs would get help starting companies that sell food-related products. IFAS will provide guidance in design and equipping of a food quality lab to be used by incubator entrepreneurs.
5. Promote the Expansion of Farmers’ Markets
Local farmers need help navigating the rules to connect directly with consumers, who likely don’t know about all their “buy local” choices. We work with local governments on permitting farmers markets and providing the support to help them succeed.
We’re currently educating farmers market operators on how to administer a federal program that makes it easy for people to use food stamps at a farmers market stand. UF/IFAS Extension wants to expand the farmers market movement into as many Florida communities as possible as a way to promote healthy eating and a buy-local ethic that drives prosperity.
6. Expand the Florida Master Naturalist Program
Master naturalist training can turn an avid birder into a birdwatching guide for hire or a weekend paddler into a kayak tour operator. Ecotourism helps everyone enjoy the incredible natural beauty of our state. It gives those who visit our theme parks and sports facilities an opportunity to experience even more of Florida. It creates jobs out of people’s passions.
7. Recruit and Create New Businesses
Extension formed an agricultural economic development council in Kissimmee Valley to recruit new agriculture-related businesses to the area, help make it easier to open value-added businesses like processing plants and to mediate potential urban vs. agriculture conflicts to help both sectors thrive economically.
We’ve got more than a century of practice in looking ahead, and we see huge opportunity in 2015. The beauty of state investment in Extension is that it supplements federal and county support. With enough support, we can continue to step up our pursuit of economic development ideas as big as Florida.
About the Author
Jack Payne is senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.