Problem solving part of a farmer’s job

Looking for a problem solver? Then talk to a farmer.

That’s one takeaway from the grower panel at last week’s Florida Ag Expo, an annual event held at the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Services, Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Balm.

Thanks to ever-changing consumer demands, labor challenges, and technology—not to mention seasonal water and weather circumstances—growers must constantly adapt to produce quality food.

Ultimately, that leaves a farmer to wear many hats.

In fact, Danny Johns of Blue Sky Farms in Elkton, said he feels like a chemist, mechanic, tractor operator and meteorologist, all rolled into one.

Panelists like Johns focused on “Finding Fixes on the Farm” in a session moderated by Sonia Tighe of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

One “fix” some of the panelists have had to make is adjusting what they grow and sell based on changes in consumer buying habits.

“Everything we do in agriculture is out of necessity. We are constantly evolving to stay in business,” said Johns. That’s why Blue Sky Farm, which has always focused on potatoes, now also grows rutabagas, turnips, and a few other produce items, because potato sales have declined.

At Southern Hill Farms in Clermont, David Hill said his farm focused on trees previously but adapted to grow blueberries four years ago. This past season, they added a U-pick section to their blueberry crop for the first time.

Farmers on the panel and around the nation also add new technology to cut labor costs and keep a closer eye on their products.

Both Johns and Todd McClure of West Coast Tomatoes in Palmetto said they have a piece of equipment called a sorter, which has a special camera to monitor for problematic produce items and remove them.

Dudley Calfee of Ferris Farms in Floral City addressed how customers’ interest in where their produce is grown led strawberry growers like him to use the Fresh QC program.

A sticker placed on the outside of the berry’s packaging allows customers to go online and track where their fruit was picked or leave comments about the fruit quality.

“All of us were skeptical about it at first, but it’s nailed down our quality,” he said. He even uses the comments to reward pickers who consistently select top-quality berries.

The panelists said that customers nowadays have a greater interest in knowing who grows their food, which Hill said is one advantage of his newer U-pick operation.

“It put a face on the farmer and gives customers a personal touch,” he said.

Another way the panelists drive business is through social media. Some of the farmers on the panel said they themselves don’t use Facebook or social media, but they have employees or family members who do. “I know without [social media and our website], we’d have 50 percent less business,” Hill said.

The Internet allows farmers to connect with consumers and comment on topics from a grower’s perspective. “We have a great story to tell, we just need to get better at telling it,” Johns said.

The panelists said one area that always demands new approaches is labor.

They addressed ways they try to attract and retain reliable pickers and pay them in a more efficient way.

West Coast Tomatoes actually issues pre-paid debit cards to pickers instead of using conventional checks, McClure said. That took some getting used to among pickers, he said.

With the average U.S. farmer around 60 years old, growers will need to find ways to attract younger farmers to agriculture, the panelists said.

The growing role of technology in farming is one way to lure new farmers into the field. Farm tours for school-aged children can even plant the seed—pun intended—later in life, they said.

The Florida Ag Expo featured other talks on regulatory issues, the Fresh From Florida marketing campaign, honey bee declines, and pest management. A variety of vendors included pest and weed control, citrus greening management, seed, and farm equipment companies.

There were also samples of citrus grown by a University of Florida program and samples of pomegranates from the Florida Pomegranate Association.

The Florida Ag Expo was presented by Florida Grower magazine, the University of Florida, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, and Florida Tomato Committee.

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