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Hillsborough farmers seek to lure millennials with technology, success

Strawberries are harvested by hand at places like Fancy Farms in Plant City. Strawberries are Hillsborough County’s top crop.
Published Jun. 26, 2016

DOVER

Farming may not rank high on the list of job interests among millennials, but Melissa Grimes thinks it should.

Grimes, a 29-year-old Plant City strawberry and blueberry farmer, works to get more young people into the industry through her position as chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau's Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee.

"Our population is growing and everyone has to eat, so I definitely want agriculture in this area to continue to thrive," Grimes said.

Judging by the economic outlook for agriculture — and new advancements that would intrigue the most tech-savvy millennials — now looks like a good time for Grimes to spread the word.

The industry suffered a setback starting a decade ago when the bacterial disease known as greening hit citrus groves in Hillsborough and nationwide, squeezing the life from about half the orange harvest and Florida's signature crop.

Some grove owners opted to sell their land to developers, but many others switched to strawberries.

Today, the juicy, red fruit ranks No. 1 in the county among all agricultural commodities, followed by vegetable production and ornamental plants.

Taken together, agriculture ranks as the county's second largest industry behind tourism, said Judi Whitson, director of the Hillsborough County Florida Farm Bureau.

"Agricultural flips back and forth with construction in that ranking, but it's an $8.1 million industry," Whitson said, adding that Hillsborough ranks fourth in the state and 59th nationally in the value of its farm products.

Businesses such as banking, real estate and transportation also benefit as a result of the area's robust agricultural industry, according to a 2012 report by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Services.

Hillsborough County's agricultural industry employs 168,654 full- and part-time workers, which amounts to 20.7 percent of the area's workforce, according to another study from the institute earlier this year.

Since 1997, the value per-acre of agricultural production in Hillsborough County has increased 42 percent even as the amount of farmland fell 7 percent.

In light of such data, and innovative practices introduced at farms and ranches, Whitson envisions "bright and sunny" days ahead for the local industry.

"I see new technology, I see better breeds that don't require as much water and pesticides, and I see a new wave of farmers coming in, including more urban kids who have a love for the land they hope to preserve and enjoy," she said.

Scientific advancements are indeed helping farmers by producing more environmentally friendly and cost-efficient crops, said Danny Kushmer, director of compliance for Highland Precision Ag, a farm technology firm based in Mulberry that serves agricultural customers in Florida.

"We use drones, and we're now moving more toward fixed-wing aircraft to show farmers their problem areas and assist them in determining their best use of water and the need for pesticides, hopefully to lessen their usage," said Kushmer, a former rancher and past board member of the Hillsborough County Farm Bureau.

The, technology, he added, also helps farmers meet state and local compliance standards.

"I would say that agriculture in Hillsborough County is as great as it's always been, even though the acreage has shrunk. Today's farmers are producing more with less land," Kushmer said.

That should appeal to the generation that reached adulthood around the year 2000, he said.

"The millennials are an astute group — they're an Amazon generation — and as home delivery expands, the farmer has more of an opportunity to sell directly to the consumer."

Dennis Carlton, a seventh-generation rancher and owner of an 80-acre farm in Dover, was one of the former orange growers who converted to strawberry fields.

He describes the future of agriculture in Hillsborough County as "strong and bright."

"Because of the population growth, in about 2000, people said there would be no agriculture left in 25 years," Carlton said. "But it's better than it's ever been because we've gone to more high-dollar crops like strawberries, watermelon and some vegetables."

One challenge that remains is maintaining the large labor force necessary to produce crops.

"It's hard to find domestic labor, and illegal immigrants cloud the issue," Carlton said.

Still, agriculture is an industry that deserves more attention in Hillsborough County, he said.

"This area wouldn't be half what it is today without the farming industry, especially strawberry farmers."

Contact Joyce McKenzie at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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