Manatee County's Farm City Week begins in earnest today with a thousand third-graders learning about agriculture by getting their hands dirty at the fairgrounds. For younger generations unaccustomed to soil and plants but well acquainted with high-tech electronics, this should be an eye-opening experience.
This annual celebration of the county's deep agricultural roots focuses on a variety of educational opportunities for people of all ages, thereby bringing the farm and ranch closer to home for everyone.
For the uninitiated, Manatee ranks seventh among Florida's 67 counties for agricultural sales, and the industry's overall economic impact on Manatee is estimated in the neighborhood of $650 million.
Farm City Week concludes on Nov. 22 with a tour where participants will witness the diversity of the county's agricultural industry -- including commercial horticulture production, wholesale fish marketing, cattle ranching and vegetable farming.
The week also features a beef prospect show, purebred rabbit show and two awards luncheons to honor the Outstanding Agriculturist and the Agriculture Hall of Fame inductee.
A challenging industry
Much of the agricultural industry contends with forces outside its control, from the weather and disease to regulations and labor. This year has brought several positive developments -- in commercial fishing and tomato production. But there are major challenges ahead -- particularly with citrus greening and farmworker shortages.
In March, the United States and Mexico finalized an agreement that averted a trade war over tomatoes -- a pact that Manatee County growers had been seeking for years to halt the unfair dumping and price undercutting of Mexican imports.
Now, with a level playing field, American growers can better compete.
West Coast Tomato alone lost 40 percent of its tomato fields over the past decade because of the unfair trade, company vice president Bob Spencer told the Herald early this year, noting the operation could expand.
The Farm City tour will make a stop at one of the McClure Farms operations, headed by D.C. McClure, a fourth-generation tomato growers and president of West Coast Tomato.
But like other farm operations in the county, West Coast Tomato is contending with a labor shortage this harvest season as migrant workers land elsewhere instead of returning here.
As Herald reporter Sabrina Rocco recounted last month, some are turning to their home countries while others find higher pay and easier work elsewhere in the United States. That could mean fewer fruits and vegetables are harvested, a loss for farmers.
Last month, a county circuit court judge overturned the 1997 state regulations on gill nets as being unfairly enforced and contradictory with the 1994 constitutional ban on the controversial nets.
That amendment and subsequent state rules devastated the Cortez commercial fishing industry, and Cortezians are cautiously optimistic the ruling will stand up on appeal.
The Legislature could revisit the regulations either way, and we think the state should.
The toughest issue
By far, the toughest issue in the agricultural industry statewide is the incurable citrus greening disease that destroys trees.
Manatee County is home to more than 24,000 acres with 3.1 million commercial citrus trees. First spotting in 2005, the spreading disease threatens the state's most valuable crop.
The state and federal governments are dedicating millions to research to find a cure, but time is the enemy as citrus greening infects more and more groves.
This coming week, as we celebrate Manatee County's agricultural heritage, let us also appreciate the industry's ongoing challenges -- and the simple fact that farmers and ranchers feed us.
For details about Farm City Week events, check www.vivaflorida.org/Events/Manatee-County-Farm-City-Week.
To read the winning middle and high school essays in Farm City Week's annual contest, check Sunday's Herald Opinion pages or read them online at www.bradenton.com/opinion.