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As we enter the dog days of summer, people will be out enduring our famous heat and our abundant resources available to them; North Central Florida is a great place to be. Whether you’re on a farm handpicking blueberries for pies, cooking steaks on the grill or enjoying watermelon on the river with family and friends, this area provides us with so many great homegrown options to fill our summer time. During these times the agriculture industry can easily be taken for granted by those not directly involved in it. However, we should not only be thankful for our farmers, ranchers and organizations like the FFA and 4-H. We should also actively support them and take advantage of what they have to offer and there are many opportunities for the people of this district to do exactly that.
As a former member of Future Farmers of America, it is difficult to overstate its importance to our young people statewide. The FFA contributes to agricultural production and helps those involved hone their leadership skills and develop as young adults. They are also provided with employment opportunities and can use the knowledge and skills they gain to improve their communities through federally funded grants they earn for local projects. We should encourage our children to join agriculture education classes and get involved in their local FFA chapter.
Agriculture remains an integral part of the economy of our state and North Central Florida’s farmers are a key part of that equation. The cattle and dairy industries remain strong in our area, as does the farming of cash crops such as corn, peanuts and watermelons. Agricultural operations stimulate the local economy as well. Perhaps the most relevant example of that is our vibrant equine industry. Worldwide there are only four major thoroughbred centers and we have one right here in Marion County. Ocala itself has 600 thoroughbred farms. In fact, six Kentucky Derby winners were produced in the Ocala area. This is not only a great industry for the region but also provides good, clean family fun. One could learn to ride horses, enjoy a carriage ride, go trail riding or take in the races during a day at the track.
This area has some of the most beautiful land in the state and in the country. The state should and does preserve some of this land through its Florida Forever program. However we must reserve enough land for the farms that provide food for the citizens of Florida. The agriculture industry in the state must be able to meet the needs of its people as best it can. When it can’t we begin to import products from other states and countries which drives up food cost. It can also result in health hazards and disease outbreaks which have become more prevalent over the past few years. This country’s food imports have nearly doubled over the past decade. As a result, we have seen contaminated products imported from China, Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada and other countries that have made us, our children and even our pets sick. In the worst cases, deaths have occurred. We must ensure that we are as independent of food imports as possible. Otherwise, we will continue to import diseases as well.
By not only appreciating but also supporting the hard-working members of the agriculture industry we can make our communities stronger and provide more opportunities for our children. We can also keep our food supply safe and affordable and protect jobs within our state. I encourage you to support your local farmers and take advantage of the many resources and opportunities provided by the agriculture industry. Contact your local Farm Bureau or IFAS Extension for more information.
Steve Oelrich is a Republican member of the Florida Senate, representing the 14th District since 2007.