Coronavirus is a reminder of Florida farms’ critical role in the food supply | Column
Here’s what we can do to secure our farms and our food, writes UF’s senior vice president for agriculture.
The Singleton farm family working with Extension agent Wendy Mussoline in a sweet potato crop in Putnam County.
The Singleton farm family working with Extension agent Wendy Mussoline in a sweet potato crop in Putnam County. [ UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones ]
Published March 25, 2020

When the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic set in, one of the first things so many people did was rush to the supermarket. The recent run on groceries demonstrates how demand for food spikes during a crisis.

It did not take long for the shelves to fill back up. Farms continue to produce an abundance of safe, nutritious, delicious, and affordable food.

That doesn’t just happen. Florida farmers work hard.

Jack Payne
Jack Payne [ Provided ]

They also work smart. Farmers have the backing of scientists whose discovery and innovation gives them the know-how to produce more food with less land, water, fertilizer and labor.

Agriculture helps make Florida resilient. Agriculture is, in my opinion, the backbone of the economy as the state’s second-largest industry. When a recession, a hurricane or a pandemic hits Florida, tourists stay home. But we all still eat.

Farmers and agricultural scientists have a lot of practice managing threats together. They overcome crop-munching pests, freezes, diseases, hurricanes, climate variability and government-subsidized international competitors.

Without such resiliency, we would have to import all our food. We’d leave it to other nations to decide what – and even whether – we eat.

That’s not just an economic issue. That’s a national security issue. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has just declared agriculture to be part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

To prevent the offshoring of your food supply, we in agriculture ask for fair trade rules, a stop to singling out agriculture for Florida’s water woes, more locavores buying Florida-produced food, immigration reform that contributes to a reliable, skilled workforce and continued public funding for agricultural science.

As reliable as agriculture has shown itself to be, it is not immune from the harm imposed by the coronavirus. As American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall pointed out, the U.S. government’s suspension of visa processing in Mexico to combat the virus will reduce farms’ access to the workforce it relies upon to produce your food.

Labor shortages are an example of yet another challenge agricultural science is helping farmers overcome. Patricio Muñoz, a blueberry breeder at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is developing new varieties of machine-harvestable blueberries. Farmers like Brittany Lee in the Gainesville area are already using these new varieties.

Lee explained during a recent guest lecture on campus that Mexican producers enjoy massive government subsidies that allow them to sell fruit at such low prices that it could put the $80-million-a-year Florida blueberry industry out of business. When she was asked what to do about it, she looked at Muñoz, and said, “The solution is Patricio.”

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Scientific breakthroughs have prevented the utter collapse of the Florida citrus industry. A disease in the groves has cost growers billions of dollars in the past decade. UF/IFAS scientists have discovered how to keep millions of trees alive and productive while they seek a long-term solution.

I’m thankful to our state Legislature for recently passing a budget that will allow us to fill vacant agricultural scientist positions. Public funding ensures that science will be shared with the public, not sold by a single corporation. If you think that doesn’t matter, then think about whom you’d like to control the first coronavirus vaccine.

Disney World is closed. So is your kids’ school. The farm isn’t. You’re still eating three meals a day because of it.

Agricultural scientists are already working on fending off the crisis that we don’t see coming but will certainly arrive – in a year, in a decade or when your grandkids someday become grandparents.

Stocking your pantry delivers comfort at a time of anxiety. But we need to continue working on a reliable food supply for the next emergency. The food on the grocery shelves delivers more than nutrition. It can bolster your local economy against shocks like the current one. It can protect us from shortages that could arise if a pandemic interrupts international supply chains.

There are some industries that just shouldn’t be outsourced. Food production is one of them.

Next time you’re in the grocery store, look for Florida-produced food. If you hear criticism of the cost of higher education, please also remember the payoff from the knowledge that keeps the produce aisle stocked, even at times when it seems every other place is deserted.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.