By: John M. Astrab IV
On March 8th, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce Leadership Tampa Class of 2017 spent the day at the Strawberry Festival and at Port Tampa for Agriculture and Port Day. The group boarded the bus from Port Tampa at 8:45am for a land far away known as Plant City to learn about the impact that agriculture has on Hillsborough County at the Strawberry Festival. The program Day Chairs were Tino Provenzano, Senior Environmental Specialist for Mosaic and John Thorington, Jr., Vice President of Government Affairs and Board Coordination of Port Tampa Bay.
At 9:30am the class arrived at the Festival grounds and was greeted on the bus by Lee Bakst, Assistant Manager of the Strawberry Festival, who provided an overview of the day at the festival. His enthusiasm for both the festival and Hillsborough County agriculture resonated throughout the day. After disembarking the bus, the group headed to the festival’s executive board room where Festival President Dan Walden provided information on the history of the festival and its annual production. Dan pointed out that the festival is self-funded, requiring no assistance from government entities, and is a family-friendly, alcohol-free environment.
- The festival was started as a Country Music venue in 1930.
- The 2017 Festival theme was “We’re Playing Your Song.”
- The 10-day festival has approximately 500,000 visitors annually and takes a volunteer staff of approximately 2,000 people to assist the paid staff of 20 to execute.
- There is an $11 million net GDP increase to Hillsborough County on approximately $26 million in customer spending as a result of the Festival.
After the overview of the festival, the class went to see the Florida Strawberry Field Exhibit. There, the class participated in a discussion with the staff of the Florida State Growers Association (FSGA) on the impact of the strawberry industry on Hillsborough County. The FSGA was created to help growers have a voice on trade with the local, state and federal legislatures as it pertains to international trade. Currently, Mexican strawberries have been suppressing the price of berries for Florida growers as the crops have overlapping seasons. The FSGA is lobbying for more fair trade practices to support the price per flat of strawberries, which has remained at breakeven level for most farmers in the last 5 years due to the competition from Mexico.
Hillsborough County Strawberry Statistics:
- Strawberries are grown from October to April each year and are approximately 40% of the agriculture revenue in Hillsborough County.
- There are two main varieties of berries currently being commercially grown in Hillsborough County: Radiant (70%) and Sweet Sensation (30%).
- Of the 12,000 Acres of Strawberries planted annually in Hillsborough County, only 250 acres are dedicated to organics. The low organics acreage is due to the challenges that weather and bugs present to growers in Florida.
- On average, each acre of strawberry fields yields approximately 30,000 flats of strawberries per season.
The festival tour continued to the Livestock Exhibit Show Floor where the class was treated to an overview presented by two Hillsborough County high school students participating in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) program. This is a program of approximately 18,000 middle and high school students across the state of Florida, 5,000 of which come from Hillsborough County. The presenters discussed that FFA educates students on not only the business of livestock but ethics and the dedication and discipline needed to care for animals. The students in the program purchase and raise animals, including rabbits, sheep, goats and cattle, with the intent to sell them at the end of the school year. At the end of the presentation, the students took the class on a tour of the stables where the animals were being kept for judging during the show.
After the livestock tour, the class was treated to a fantastic southern comfort meal of pork and chicken back in the executive boardroom. Of course, no trip to the Strawberry Festival would be complete without a gut-busting strawberry shortcake for dessert (which was well received by the class).
As the class was finishing up lunch, Day Chair Tino Provenzano led a panel discussion with Jake Austin, CEO of Plant City Economic Development Corporation and Alex Walter (LT’14), Managing Partner of Walson Ventures, LLC and Owner/Operator of Thundercloud Ranch. During the discussion, the topic of trends in agriculture struck a nerve with both Alex and Jake. Alex, being a farm owner, discussed how water rights are becoming an increasingly large problem not just for him but for farms nationwide. He talked about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tightening regulations on the definition of clean water to the point that some their standards call for water cleaner than rain water. Additionally, Alex felt that there needed to be more collaboration between the local and federal levels of the EPA.
Jake, coming from the economic development side, talked about labor and the impact of mechanical harvesting grant funds on agribusiness. The goal of the grant funding is to lower the cost per acre of product harvested by removing the need for unskilled labor and in turn keep more small farmers afloat so they can compete on pricing pressures being caused by foreign product.
The panel discussion concluded at 1:00pm and the class boarded the bus to head back to Tampa for a 2:00pm discussion with Paul Anderson, President and CEO of Port Tampa Bay. Port Tampa can trace its roots back to the early 1800s with the first shipments of goods being cattle to Cuba. Through the early 1900s, it would grow to become a major port along the Gulf Coast, primarily through the moving of agricultural product including cattle and timber. Today, the port moves break bulk, liquid bulk, cargo containers and cruise passengers. Paul also provided the following facts about the port:
- In 2016, the port had a $17.2 billion impact on the region and supported 85,000 jobs.
- In 2016, the port generated $52 million in revenue and $28 million in profit.
- The port maintains an A-rating by various ratings agencies.
- The current Port Tampa is a quasi-public entity that was founded in 1945 and is the largest, land acreage-wise, in Florida.
- Nearly half of the fuel in the state of Florida comes though Port Tampa.
- The cruise terminal continues to grow with 8 year-round ships and is expected to surpass one million passengers for the first time in 2017.
- In early 2016 the Port invested $24 million in two new container cranes to support larger cargo ships that will be coming through the Panama Canal as the expansion is completed.
To end the day, the Class went for an hour-long boat tour of the Port aboard the Florida Aquarium’s Bay Spirit II.