Protecting the lush farmland in and near towns, such as Dade City and Zephyrhills, has been the focal point, for decades, of the Pasco County Farm Bureau.
The grassroots organization supports the needs of farmers and their produce.
The agency is just one within 60 statewide counties that fall under the Florida Farm Bureau – an organization that began more than 75 years ago.
Allen Altman is an agency manager for the Pasco County branch and has been with the bureau for almost 40 years.
“[The] Farm Bureau is out there making sure that farmers have the opportunity to remain viable economically,” Altman said. “We’re a membership organization that embraces all agriculture producers and the values that they stand for.”
In doing so, the bureau offers coverage policies to farmers for their equipment and buildings, as well as automobile, homeowners and life insurance.
This coverage is not exclusive to only farmers, but open to everyday consumers who are Farm Bureau members.
And, while the organization is independent of government, it does work with legislators in helping pass measures beneficial to agriculture.
In the past, it has been successful in helping to implement a statewide agricultural sales tax exemption.
This has saved Florida farmers and ranchers more than $2.3 million in annual tax exemptions for health and medical products used for livestock.
An additional $13 million has been spared in taxes for farm equipment, as well.
In its efforts to preserve the Everglades, the bureau was instrumental in reducing the cost to build a water storage reservoir, and has advocated for access to proper water distribution to maintain healthy crops.
Last year, the federal government had signed into law the Agriculture Improvement Act, which allocated $867 billion to help sustain farmers nationwide.
The bipartisan measure was in response to the United States trade tensions with China, which had a negative economic impact for U.S. farm producers.
The financial aid has benefited Pasco farmers, but not to the same extent as those in Midwestern states that tend to have more farmland, Altman said.
While there are issues that the Farm Bureau can readily address, others aren’t as simple.
Throughout the early to late 1980s, harsh winter conditions devastated Florida’s citrus crops – especially in Pasco County.
“The entire economy revolved around citrus production,” Altman said. “Two freezes combined killed 98 percent of the producing citrus in Pasco County. It has never been the same since.”
During the aftermath, the Pasco agency has tried to produce alternative crops that could bolster the farm market to the levels that citrus once did.
Farmers have turned to Florida peaches as a viable commodity. While they are plentiful within the county, there are economic obstacles, such as shipping and sales, that have yet to be worked out, Altman noted.
In 2012, Pasco County’s market value for crop and livestock products sold, amounted to more than $73.8 million – representing a 34 percent decline from 2007, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Also, the citrus greening disease has plagued many crops, both locally and nationally.
This disease infects the trees of this fruit family when exposed to the Asian insect, citrus psyllid.
Although the infected citrus pose no threat to humans, they are not suitable for consumption because the oranges remain green and taste bitter. This in turn, hurts the citrus market in the county, which has struggled to recover since the winter freezes decades back.
This is a matter of concern for many farmers, including Altman himself, who owns 6 acres of tangerine trees.
While there is no known cure, scientists are striving to find solutions to eradicate this disease.
One successful method of helping stabilize the market has been collaborating with other farm bureaus in different states.
Upon entering the Dade City bureau office, a refrigerator and shelves stocked with various edibles can be spotted.
Many of these foods come from other states, including jams, jellies, sauces and cheeses.
Florida’s Best is a name brand company that distributes products that the Sunshine State is known for – including orange blossom honey.
Currently the largest production distributed out of Pasco County is live cattle, Altman said.
The Farm Bureau also tries to bring awareness to the public and emphasize the importance of agriculture.
The agency’s members attest to its efficiency by word of mouth – as does its county board of directors.
“We try to find people from a diverse background of agriculture to represent that board and help develop policy,” Altman explained.
One such person on the board is State Sen. Wilton Simpson, of Trilby, who also is a poultry farmer.
As a legislator, Simpson articulates the needs of Pasco County farmers to implement policies in their favor within Tallahassee, Altman said.
The agency also has a presence at the annual Pasco County Fair, taking advantage of the venue in its quest to educate the public about the farm industry.
The Farm Bureau puts a heavy emphasis on educating youth, in particular.
“We focus most of our efforts on young people and trying to make sure that those students [who] want to go into agriculture have our support,” Altman stated.
The agency educates kids through youth programs, such as the local Head, Heart, Hands and Health (4H) club and Future Farmers of America (FFA).
It also goes into Pasco County classrooms to introduce teaching and reading sessions for the students, said Altman, who also sits on the Pasco County School Board.
In collaboration with the Pasco Education Foundation, the bureau also offers scholarships to high school seniors who have an interest in pursuing a degree in an agriculture-related field.
Whether buying from a farmer’s market or a commercial grocery story, Altman said he wants the average consumer to understand the effort that goes into making produce or poultry available.
“Don’t take it for granted,” the agency manager said. “Somebody somewhere has worked extremely hard to produce that commodity and put it on the shelf for your convenience.”
The Farm Bureau isn’t the only organization that encourages youths to become involved in the agricultural industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently launched a Youth and Agriculture website to connect young people and youth-serving organizations with department-wide resources that engage, empower and educate the next generation of agricultural leaders.
The website’s three key components include: classroom studies, experiential learning and leadership training.
Published June 26, 2019