From Treetops to Rooftops

Report Sounds Alarm on Projected Effect of Development on Florida Agriculture


When Christian Spinosa’s family began cultivating and caretaking citrus in Bartow more than 70 years ago, the groves in the region went on for miles and miles, acre upon acre. 

In his lifetime of working and caretaking in the citrus industry, he’s seen the plethora of citrus and other ag-related land all around him slowly give way to more rooftops and fewer treetops. 

Spinosa, 33, is a fifth-generation grower and vice president of Dudley Putnam, a Bartow-based citrus caretaking company. His company oversees about 1,000 acres of citrus in Polk County and manages cattle and hay in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties. 

A new report by the University of Florida Center for Landscape Conservation Planning and 1000 Friends of Florida, the state’s leading not-for-profit smart-growth advocacy organization, shows urban development — and on a smaller scale, sea level rise — are projected to result in the loss of about 120 acres of agricultural land per day by 2070. 

The Florida Agriculture 2040/2070 report concludes that those losses will account for about 45,000 acres of agricultural land being paved over each year.

Numbers of this magnitude are somewhat alarming to Spinosa, and he says he hopes studies like this one will help longtime and newer state residents better understand the important role of agriculture in the state’s economy.

According to UF/IFAS, the direct economic contributions of the agriculture, natural resource and food industries in 2019 added up to $106 billion in sales and 1.3 million jobs. In addition to the economic value they provide, Florida’s agricultural production and land are also essential to the sustainment and improvement of food security and nutrition. 

Much of the current urbanized growth is inevitable given Florida’s current population, which will grow by 225,000 to 275,000 new residents by the end of 2024, according to Florida Chamber Foundation economists.

Spinosa says the loss of agricultural land isn’t entirely due to the state of the citrus industry, but due to the overall cost of real estate prices offered statewide making it difficult to keep it in agricultural production.

“We’re definitely seeing a change. Here in the Central Florida area, you see Tampa and Orlando growing closer to each other every day,” he says. “When you’ve got 1,100 people a day moving to the state of Florida…you’re definitely seeing the challenge with development coming in and agriculture acres taken out.”

Proof of Spinosa’s observations isn’t too hard to find. Across Central Florida and beyond, land that has long been dominated by groves and pastures is increasingly going from roots to roofs. 

Rising Sea Levels 

In addition to development, the rising sea levels will also hasten the loss of wild and agricultural lands. As Florida’s population heads to more than 26 million people and more land is lost to rising seas, about 1 million more undeveloped acres could fall under pavers in two decades, according UF and 1000 Friends of Florida.

The report, based on a Geographic Information System (GIS)-based Florida’s Rising Seas 2070 Sprawl Scenario, states that between now and 2070 the state could potentially add more than 12 million more residents, resulting “in the loss of approximately 3.5 million acres of land to development, including approximately 2.2 million acres of agricultural land.” 

Florida Farm Bureau Reaction

Jeb Smith, president of the Florida Farm Bureau, says those numbers and figures could possibly lead to the elimination of viable land for food production. He says at the current rate of loss, vital environmental benefits such as freshwater recharge areas and wildlife habitats will also be plowed under.

“It is imperative that we recognize the value Florida agriculture provides,” he says. 

Smith says one of the best ways to preserve farmland and keep it in production is to support programs like the state’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which has preserved more than 69,000 acres of farmland. 

“Agriculture is a business, and it must be profitable to be viable,” says Smith, a fifth-generation farmer born and raised in St. Johns County. “Giving farmers a way to continue providing a bountiful food supply while preserving our state’s land for future generations is a benefit for all Florida citizens.”

Land Fragmentation

Another major area of Florida agricultural concern noted in the report is the impact of land fragmentation. According to the report, “the resulting creation of fragmented parcels makes the landscape less viable for current agricultural uses and future opportunities.” The report concludes the loss of agricultural lands creates a “ripple through the regional economy.” That ripples effect would include things like farm equipment dealerships and seed stores going out of business because of a lack of customers. That, the report says, would result in less viability of agriculture and further fragmentation “to the point of no return.” 

“The conversion of agricultural land to sprawling subdivisions and strip malls leaves remaining agricultural land and the ecosystem services they provide increasingly vulnerable, fragmented, and often degraded,” the report states.

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