Agriculture keeps on growing as true essential industry

  • A truck filled with potatoes arrives at L&M Farms in East Palatka. Agriculture is the state’s second-leading industry.
    A truck filled with potatoes arrives at L&M Farms in East Palatka. Agriculture is the state’s second-leading industry.
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I was 12, maybe 13 years old. I don’t remember for sure. I do remember it was hot. Alabama heat and humidity, similar to what we get in Putnam County.

My uncle Willard needed some help hauling hay. My dad thought it would be a good way for me to spend a Saturday. Me, not so much.

Nevertheless, my cousin Jay, our friend Jeff, and I gathered at my uncle’s farm that hot and sticky morning.

Now, I grew up on a farm with my dad having cattle, pigs and goats. But it was more of a sideline operation for him. He worked full time at Reynolds Metals. But that day we spent hauling hay taught me more than I cared to know about hard work down on the farm. More on that day will follow.

First, agriculture and the farming industry have become more appreciated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Farmers are too often overlooked for their crucial role in society. If they don’t grow it or raise it, we don’t eat, plain and simple.

And the agriculture industry has long been a primary driver of the economy in Florida – particularly for rural counties such as Putnam.

I asked state Rep. Bobby Payne of Palatka for his thoughts on the importance of the agriculture sector in Putnam County. And he had plenty to say about it.

Payne said agriculture and related industries in Putnam County generate almost 10,000 jobs, $750 million-plus in revenue and more than 38% of the contribution to the gross regional product. Payne cited those numbers as coming from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

In the Sunshine State, the only money maker that is bigger is tourism. 

“As a state, agriculture is our second-leading economic driver,” Payne said. “During the recession that started in the late 2000s, agriculture sustained the state’s economy when tourism slowed and businesses were suffering. Most people in our community would be surprised to know the economic impact of agriculture, farming, ranching, fruit and vegetable production in Putnam and surrounding counties.”

Payne said it’s estimated for every $1 invested in agriculture research and extension, there is a return of more than $20 to the community. That’s a significant cash cow.

Payne added he campaigned for the state House on the need to help rural communities, calling agriculture one of the most important elements in rural counties like Putnam. It’s an industry – as we’re realizing even more so these days – we cannot lose. We have to pray that farming families will continue to thrive and that the next generation will carry on their truly essential work.

“I am proud of our rural agricultural economy,” Payne said. “I am always comforted by the visits I receive from our local FFA and 4-H students. It reminds me the future is bright for agriculture in Putnam County.”

Related to that, look for the Daily News’ annual agriculture special section – Grown in Putnam – in Saturday’s edition of the newspaper.

The section includes a story by News Editor Brandon D. Oliver on the wide-reaching impact the agriculture industry has in Putnam and how vital it is for the county’s continued economic development. It’s a good read, as are other stories in the section.

Like everything else in today’s world, the agriculture industry has taken a hit from the coronavirus. The restaurant business is down nationwide with stay-at-home orders, therefore restaurant owners are not buying as much food from farmers. Some farmers have reportedly been forced to plow up their crops.

There are legitimate reasons for concern.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and the state’s congressional delegation urging further action to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the agriculture industry.

In the letter, Fried said the Florida Seasonal Crop COVID-19 Impact Assessment released this week projects losses for state agriculture upwards of $522 million. There is some USDA aid coming through relief programs, but Fried fears it is too little too late for Florida farmers.

“For weeks, we have called for immediate federal purchases to help our fresh fruit and vegetable producers mitigate these losses, but the purchases coming now may be too late in the season for Florida farmers to benefit,” Fried said. She urged leaders to make sure farmers “aren’t left behind in this unprecedented time.”

Hopefully, that will change when the pandemic ends and things return to some type of normalcy. Something good is ahead. It has to be for all of us, including our farmers and the ag industry.

But the talk of farming and agriculture did cause me to think back on that one day hauling hay for my uncle. He baled hay comfortably from his tractor, with my dad driving the truck. I thought he might let me drive a few laps and get a break.

Nope. Instead, Jay, Jeff and I picked up the dang square hay bales and slung them onto the truck. I can only guess at how much each one weighed, but the twine-wrapped bales had to weigh at least 70 pounds if they weighed an ounce. They would somehow get heavier and the field seemed to get bigger as the day prolonged.

I get thirsty and start itching just thinking about it. I think he paid us maybe $5 apiece for the day. And we did get to cool off in the creek after getting the truck loaded, bales stacked high on the rickety old ride.

But then my uncle said it was time to head back to the barn and unload the truck. I recall he mentioned about watching out for rat snakes and hornets in the barn as we tossed those heavy bales of hay inside, stacking them as neatly as we could.

It was at that point I decided I had all the hay baling experience I wanted. So had Jay and Jeff. We were ready to bail.

 

Wayne Smith is the editor of the Palatka Daily News. His email is wsmith@palatkadailynews.com.