Farmers and ranchers are rightly proud of their businesses, as well as the agricultural heritage and the unique agrarian cultures within their own states.

When they venture out of state for regional or national meetings, a popular agenda item is usually a tour of other farms and ranches. Agriculture is so dominated by diversity that these food and fiber producers — experts in their own fields — are always anxious to learn what’s up on the other side of the fence.

The same can be said of anyone who works in agriculture. Recently a group of agriculture communicators — the Agricultural Relations Council — gathered in Florida to explore the state. Visitors quickly learned that in discussions of Florida agriculture the word “diverse” becomes cliché.

Florida’s farmers and ranchers are producing 280 different crops and products on 43,000 commercial farms. Where else can you get off the tour bus in an orange grove, in the center of a ranch and get chased by an alligator? This look at Florida agriculture also included an organic farm with a community supported agriculture business structure and a historic ranch in the south central part of the state, far from the swollen winter populations of Florida’s well-developed coastlines.

At the Longino Ranch, the tour was met by a friendly contingent of ranchers, growers and agriculture leaders who were very proud to tell the kaleidoscopic story of agriculture in the Sunshine State. Jim Strickland, president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, told the fascinating tale of how in 1521 Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon brought the first cows to this country. Known as “cracker cattle,” the breed has been preserved as a living part of American history.

“We’re real proud that we had the first cattle on the continent,” Strickland noted.

Today, Florida ranchers and dairy producers maintain the largest cattle herd east of the Mississippi River. Strickland, a Farm Bureau member in Florida, says it’s “very common” for ranching operations to also maintain citrus groves with a constant eye on vital diversification.

Longino Ranch runs primarily Brangus cattle and has extensive orange and grapefruit orchards, commercial timber, hunting opportunities, sod, swamp cabbage and is also the adopted home of the gopher tortoise, many of which have been relocated from populated areas to this remote ranch for preservation.

Not a perfect situation

While cropping and livestock areas see between 50 of 60 inches of rain per year, it’s tough to hold water in beach-like soil…and then there are so-called “storm events” that sprinkle the local crop production vernacular with terms like “except in a hurricane year.”

The sub-tropical climate has many advantages for farmers, including being able to produce the highest quality citrus year-round. It also has many challenges that come with its meteorological and political climate. Bugs and pests thrive in such environs and producers also have to contend with frost, drought, hurricanes, development, energy costs, labor issues, water worries, pestilence and bureaucratic regulations.

Strickland recently pointed out to a congressional committee on Capitol Hill that growers also have to deal with “pseudo-scientific trade barriers.”

Despite these pesky problems Florida farmers are number one in the nation in the production of citrus, snap beans, fresh market tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, sugarcane and a number of other commodities.

These growers proudly produce 76 percent of the nation’s citrus crop, a $9 billion bonanza for the state. There is also a thriving aquaculture industry turning out aquatic plants, tropical fish and clams. Throughout the on-going economic challenges, Florida agriculture has been a stabilizing influence on the entire state.

It’s easy to see why a lot of folks in the U.S. think of Florida as just ‘gators and ‘glades, astronauts and Mickey Mouse, but a side trip off the interstate reveals the manifold and historic world of agriculture in fabulous Florida.

Erik Ness is a regular contributor to AFBF’s Focus on Agriculturecommentary series. He is a media consultant and a retired staff member of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau.