The state of Florida agriculture: Innovations, better crops, greater production

In the Tampa Bay Area, agriculture is a major economic player just as it has been since at least the late 19th century, when cattle ranches, citrus groves, and vegetable crops were established throughout rural communities around the Bay.

While many of these former pasturelands and farms have long since given way to strip malls, housing communities, and other forms of urban sprawl, agriculture remains an important part of the region’s economy. 

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services led by Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida had 47,000 commercial farms occupying over 9.45 million acres in 2017. That year, the state ranked first in the nation in the value of production for cucumbers, grapefruit, oranges, squash, sugarcane, fresh market snap beans, and fresh market tomatoes. 

Meanwhile, strawberry growing, culturally and economically significant to Hillsborough County, pulled $337 million for the state in 2017. Overall, the value of agricultural products from Hillsborough County yielded $378 million in 2012, while Pasco and Pinellas pumped out $74 million and $3 million, respectively. 

“With over 300 different commodities produced by our growers, Florida has a long history of supplying food for the state and the nation,” says Fried, who believes Florida can continue improving its agricultural output by embracing and implementing new ideas for growing and harvesting both traditional and alternative crops while treading more lightly on the environment.

“Innovation and technological advances in agriculture are critical to our goals of increasing productivity and reducing environmental impact. Our department is dedicated to creating partnerships with a forward-thinking approach that guarantees sustainable agricultural by enhancing access to innovative technology and the most up-to-date training and sustainability practices.”

Innovation was at the core of a trade mission Fried and her team embarked on in Israel this past summer.

“We saw first-hand incredible solutions to citrus greening, toxic blue-green algae, and water conservation. Our department is looking at ways to incorporate that cutting-edge technology to help us take on challenges here in Florida.” 

She says these new ideas will be especially important to a place like the Tampa Bay Area, which she cites as a great example of how agriculture has innovated and adapted.

“As a growing tech hub, there are many companies working on a multitude of agriculture technology that takes unique approaches to farming. Our agriculture producers face a changing economy and environment, and this department is committed to helping them grow, compete, and thrive.”

The nitty gritty

Agriculture is about more than farms and tractors. There are many moving parts and understanding how they all work together is key to developing new innovations and technologies.

“Healthy soil produces healthy crops -- the quality of our soil depends on its nutrients, which provide crops with organic material crucial for growth,” explains Fried. “Agricultural products rely on nutrients to offset toxic elements that can adversely affect a crop's growth and quality. Essential nutrients in excess make our crops susceptible to insects or polluting surface and groundwater, which is why nutrient balance is central to healthy crops and a healthy environment.” 

Some of these nutrients come from fertilizer, and one of the most important industries in the Tampa Bay Area is phosphate mining, and that’s where phosphorous -- a key ingredient in fertilizer -- comes from.

“Phosphorus is one of the primary nutrients required for plant development. It is a key part of modern food production. For farmers to produce the crops that feed Florida and drive our economy, it’s important that we do not mismanage how we extract this finite resource, and that we are mindful of its impacts on our natural lands and waterways.”

Mosaic is the nation’s largest U.S. producer of phosphate fertilizer.Mosaic is the nation’s largest U.S. producer of phosphate fertilizer, a product for which approximately 90% of the phosphate mined in Florida is used. The company, which relocated its headquarters from Minneapolis to Tampa in this fall, is part of a larger phosphate and fertilizer sector which, according to a 2016 study released by Port Tampa Bay, supports nearly 46,000 jobs and generates more than $3 billion in personal income in the regional economy. For its part, Mosaic employs more than 3,000 people in the Sunshine State and owns some 290,000 acres in Central Florida. 

While phosphate is the predominate driver of Mosaic’s operations and products, including its DAP and MAP fertilizers among many others, the company devotes more than 6,000 acres to citrus groves and some 250 acres to blueberry farms, watermelon fields, sod farming, and eucalyptus plants. These lands help Mosaic properties not only flourish with produce but also serve as a canvas for many of the new things that the organization is doing on a grander scale. 

“Based on the crops grown in Florida and the soil types where our state’s agricultural operations exist, Florida is not a large consumer of phosphate fertilizers,” says Mosaic VP of Mine Permitting, Land Management, and Public Affairs Russell Schweiss. “It is already present in most Florida soils.”
Florida’s phosphate deposits were formed millions of years ago when the land now known as the Bone Valley Formation was under ocean waters, and phosphate mining has been big in Florida for more than a century. Phosphate is a significant part of commercial fertilizers, which account for anywhere from 40% to 60% of U.S. crop yields, depending on soil types. 

“Phosphate is one of three vital crop nutrients used by farmers to maximize their crop yields,” Schweiss explains. “The phosphorus derived from phosphate rock is a naturally occurring element, so there’s no synthetic substitute. Humans need it for healthy bones, to power our cells and it’s in our DNA.”

Phosphorous is removed from fields when farmers harvest crops, which is why replenishing land with phosphorous is a vital part of the farming process to help keep yields high.

“We believe in responsible nutrient management, which is why we champion the use of sustainable, innovative application techniques to help teach farmers how to grow more food on less land,” says Schweiss. 

“The 4R Nutrient Stewardship program is just one way we show farmers that using the right source of nutrients, at the right time, in the right place, and at the right rate can significantly improve overall crop yields on the farm and also help protect the environment by minimizing and even eliminating nutrient runoff. By coupling our products with best practices in nutrient stewardship, farmers are able to achieve higher yields -- ultimately helping to feed a growing world.”

Mosaic’s other progressive efforts include a successful land and lake reclamation program that offers land for cattle leasing operations for local ranchers and water for fishing operations, the latter producing more than 1 million pounds of restaurant-grade tilapia in 2018 alone.

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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.