Farmers encouraged to reach out to city residents

OKEECHOBEE — The growing disconnect between farmers and those who live in cities was addressed at the Farm-City Week luncheon on Nov. 21 at the Okeechobee KOA.

Lake Okeechobee News/Katrina Elsken
Kevin Folta (right), from the University of Florida Horticulture Sciences Department, was the guest speaker at the Farm-City Luncheon on Nov. 21 at the Okeechobee KOA. At left is Ben Butler, who represents the Heartland counties on the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.

Guest speaker Kevin Folta, a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, said many people who live in cities don’t understand what agriculture is, and are mislead by what they read on social media online.

Dr. Folta encouraged the farmers and ranchers present to be part of the online conversations. He joked that they might have to ask a child or a grandchild to help them get started on the social media websites. It’s important to tell their personal stories to connect with members of the public who only know what they read online, he said.

“Some folks in the city frequently feel they are experts on food and farming,” Dr. Folta said. The internet provides lots of incorrect information, and these people believe what they read online.

“Some people aren’t smart enough to know that they don’t know anything,” he said.

Others who know a little think they know a lot, he continued. Unfortunately, many public officials who are making major decisions that affect the state and the country are in this category.

The average American spends less on food today than at any time in history, he said. That changes their appreciation of what happens on the farm.

In addition to combating public sentiment that is misguided about farming, farmers face challenges with weather, labor costs, trade policies and diseases that harm produce and animals, he continued. It’s difficult for farmers to make a profit, especially faced with competition from foreign countries with lower labor costs.

Depression is a growing problem in the farming community, he explained.

But there’s hope. “Crisis and opportunity travel together,” said Dr. Folta. “I believe we are entering a new era with the convergence of technology taking agriculture to a new level.”

Agriculture robots are real, he said. The problems maintaining a human workforce on the farms has spurred the development of machines to do the work.

For example, solar-powered weeding machines can detect the difference between a desired plant and a weed. Rovers sniff for a fungus or bacteria and connect with a drone to spray that spot, which means farmers don’t have to spray an entire field. Other machines can monitor microbes in the soil, making it possible for farmers to fine tune the amounts of fertilizer and water the plants need.

Breakthroughs in genetics will also benefit agriculture, he explained. Gene editing offers scientists the opportunity to go through a billion levels of DNA and remove one. This is already happening, he said. Gene edits in pigs have resulted in animals less vulnerable to viruses. In Florida, gene editing might fix the problem of citrus greening, he said. “We can turn off the genes that allow bacteriological infection.”

Dr. Folta said another encouraging movement brings farms to the cities, allowing people to farm more in the urban environment by using abandoned buildings for plant production. He said urban farming efforts will never replace traditional agriculture, but could compliment it.

There are a lot of threats to modern agriculture, Dr. Folta said, but there are a tremendous number of solutions.

“This new technology is meaningless if the farms are not connected to the city,” he said.

Social media is where misinformation thrives, he continued. “We must be part of the conversation.”

He encouraged the farmers and ranchers to share not just what they know, but also why they are passionate about agriculture. He encouraged them to share the fact that farmers and city residents want the same things: low cost, affordable, healthy food that’s easier on the environment.

“Tell your story — what you do and why you do it,” he said. “Make a resolution to really reach out and connect with the people in the city in 2020.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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