MANATEE -- Manatee County's rich agricultural history and those responsible for its longevity will be celebrated with a week's worth of events beginning Nov. 7.
The function is being organized by the Manatee County Extension Office, the local service office of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. It coincides with National Farm City Week, which is celebrated annually one week before Thanksgiving.
For decades, Farm City Week has allowed urbanites an opportunity to learn about farm life and the origin of the products they consume. The week's events include a folk festival, farm tour, beef prospect show, agricultural hall of fame luncheon and contests for middle and high school age students. The event also recognizes the 150th anniversary of signing of The Morrill Act of 1862, which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law to establish a land-grant university system.
"It's extremely important because agriculture is our second highest commodity after tourism," said Betty Glassburn, a Farm City committee member. "We employ so many people."
"We're finding more and more, people are losing their awareness of agriculture and where their food comes from," said Marina D'Abreau, Manatee extension executive director. "We put agriculture back to the forefront of the consciousness of the public."
The late Callon C. Keen Sr. will be this year's inductee into the Manatee County Agriculture Hall of Fame.
Glassburn, whose family owns over a hundred acres of farm land in Duette, started the farm tour and beef pros
pect show activities for Farm City week.
"They can see one on one what is happening in their agricultural community," she said.
The estimated agricultural economic impact on Manatee is $646 million and crop production accounts for more than $183.6 million in exports and 30,000 jobs, according to IFAS. Manatee agriculture ranks seventh among Florida's 67 counties and vegetable production is the county's leading agricultural enterprise with 55,700 acres valued at $290 million.
"It impacts everything. The companies that bring in fuel, sell chemicals and fertilizer," said Gary Reeder, president of the Manatee Farm Bureau and fourth generation tomato grower. "If you took agriculture out of Manatee County, we'd be in big trouble."
As vibrant as it is, however, agricultural land continues to diminish in Manatee.
In 1991, the county had 313,728 acres of agricultural production space. In 2002, the land used for farming had fallen by 10 percent, totalling 280,593 acres. By 2011, the county's farm land acreage had fallen to 249,113 acres, according to the county property appraiser's office.
Local farmers understand growth is inevitable.
"This is the land of the free," said local fruit and vegetable grower Ben King, whose farm is located in East Manatee. "If someone owns land close to town and they want to sell it, it's their right. That's what keeps our economy going."
Jim Strickland, the county agricultural property appraiser and longtime rancher, said he understands the importance of all of the elements of the local economy.
"I still understand we must have tourism, we have to have building and growth and I'm glad we have the Right to Farm act," Strickland said. "I love a vibrant economy."
In 1979, all 50 states enacted the Right-to-Farm act, which helped protect farm businesses from urban sprawl. Prior to the act, as urbanization flowed into rural land, lawsuits were filed aimed at halting farm operations because of nuisance complaints of noise, odor, dust of fumes. The lawsuits resulted in farms closing, altering their business operations and being assessed penalties.
Under the act, if a farm was in place for at least a year and was not deemed harmful at the start of its operation and conformed with government regulation, it was free to operate.
"There has been a lot talk about urban-rural divide but I say its urban-rural interface," D'Abreau said. "There is a movement to decrease our environmental footprint. It's about raising awareness and increasing accessibility to our locally grown foods."
The Kiwanis International Agriculture and Conservation Committee started Farm City Week in 1955 to enhance the public's view of agriculture.
"So many businesses rely on what we do, from irrigation to fuel companies," King said.
"We are a factor," Reeder said.
For more information about Farm City Week or to make reservations for tours and other activities, call 941-722-4524.
Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter: @_1NickWilliams