UF scientists study shopping trends

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It’s a golden age for consumer choice in the produce aisle. Take peppers, for example. You can find Southwest Florida-grown bell peppers, alongside jalapenos and poblanos in your local grocery store.

But can you even name a single variety of another of Southwest Florida’s big crops, watermelon? The produce stickers don’t tell you whether you’re buying Troubadour, Fascination or Melody.

You buy watermelon based on something else.

It’s Kim Morgan’s job to help Florida farming thrive by figuring out what that something else is. She’s an agricultural economist. She researches what you put into our carts and why. She probes whether you even want to know what variety of fruit or vegetable you’re buying, or if it’s more important to know whether it’s gluten-free, non-GMO, organic, local, or low-cal.

Morgan discovers what people want.

There are nearly 300 crops produced in Florida, most of which come in vast array of varieties. That’s a lot of choices for economists to analyze. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences recently hired Morgan to better understand the economics of food in Southwest Florida and has expanded the statewide team in its Department of Food and Resource Economics to nearly 30 faculty members.

You’d likely have much less local food without these social scientists’ insights. A farmer who grows something no one
wants to buy will soon be doing something other than farming — like selling land to developers.

Economists’ insights underpin the state’s second-largest industry. In fact, we know it’s the second largest industry because UF/IFAS economists document its economic impact. As publicly funded scientists, UF/IFAS economists freely share their findings on what you want to eat with your neighbors who can supply it.

About 30 years ago, there was no Florida blueberry industry to speak of. But UF/IFAS science indicated that Floridians would buy locally grown fruit if it were available, and that encouraged farmers to try what at the time was considered a niche crop. Blueberries have since grown into an $60 million-a-year industry in the state. That’s home-grown jobs and tax revenue to support local services, not to mention a new rite of spring in Florida, visiting a U-pick farm.

UF/IFAS economists are especially valuable in times of economic turmoil like the ones we’re in now. Policy makers rely upon UF/IFAS analyses to understand the scope of an economic crisis and to determine the scope of a policy response. With its network of Extension offices, research centers, and teaching sites, UF/IFAS is the local university everywhere in
Florida. In this area, it includes the Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. At that center, Morgan joins fellow economist Tara Wade, who works on issues such as the costs and benefits for farmers who invest in equipment and techniques that reduce the impact of their operations on the environment.

Southwest Florida does not rely on Morgan and Wade alone. An economist based in Polk County crunches the numbers for citrus producers in Lee, Collier, and elsewhere. Those numbers show them it’s still possible to make a living growing Florida’s iconic crop even as their trees suffer a disease that has cost growers billions over the past decade.

A cattle economist in Hardee County has supplied ranchers in Southwest Florida with personalized budgets that guide their decisions on what to feed their animals, when to sell them, and whether they should breed or buy to expand the herd. And in Gainesville, the UF/IFAS economics department analyzes the choices and the numbers behind everything from timber to turf to tomatoes.

It’s all possible because of investment in public science. The state has wisely focused this investment on the university that has the team and the infrastructure to produce science for Floridians from Fort Myers to Pensacola. Only at UF/IFAS do economists have co-workers who specialize in plant disease, breeding, insect threats, irrigation, and much more.

This team’s discovery and dissemination of numbers and knowhow will help Floridians adapt to the current crisis and be better prepared for the next one. There will be a next one, whether it’s drought, hurricane, trade wars, or something we haven’t imagined yet.

Of all the choices you make about food, one of the most important is to support investment in public science in the science behind it. That choice opens up the panoply of choices you’re given in the supermarket.

Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

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