Major agriculture players — growers, industry advocates, scientists, and policymakers alike — will congregate in West Palm Beach on Wednesday for the Palm Beach International Agricultural Summit.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is expected to join in, along with senior executives from farm machinery giant John Deere and leading food pantry operator United Way of New York, as participants take a deep dive into issues like Palm Beach County’s role in producing winter crops in the Northeastern U.S., new farming innovations, how to solve global hunger challenges, and sharing knowledge and best practices among agribusinesses worldwide.
Another heavy hitter in the ag world making the pilgrimage to Palm Beach is Dr. Shabtai “Shep” Cohen, who directs the Institute of Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences at the Agricultural Research Organization’s Volcani Center in Bet Dagan, Israel.
Cohen said he spoke with event organizers and sugar industry representatives on Tuesday about water quality and water cycling, a key issue in South Florida, where acute problems in ailing waterways like the Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee River have made headlines statewide and nationally.
Cohen said, overall, agricultural methods have gotten far more efficient, and there’s enough data available to help farmers make better decisions both economically and ecologically. But as of today, there’s still a disconnect between that data and the actors on the ground who must implement that knowledge.
“I think where we lag behind is on decision support systems that can analyze the data and give farmers the right recommendations,” said Cohen. “I think the situation is now — the farmer can get the data. If they are an intelligent farmer, he can maybe learn how to use the data, but we don’t have the support to tell him what exactly what to do with the data.”
Cohen said this state of affairs is to be expected, “the way new technologies develop”: technologies almost always evolve unevenly. In this case, remote sensor technology allows observers to note nearly infinite points of data, but other research sectors have lagged somewhat behind. In other words, “We have more data than we know how to use.”
On the whole though, Cohen was bullish regarding the state of South Florida agriculture.
Around the corner are cheap structures that can alter agriculture climate to increase productivity.
“In the case of sugar production it’s tremendously efficient,” said Cohen. He said current sugar-farming practices like “no-till” harvesting prevent depletion of soil, and that water pollution from the crop itself is negligible or non-existent.
“I think in a way things have become much more agriculturally friendly. From what I’ve seen the agriculture here isn’t really challenging the environment,” said Cohen, though he stressed the need for preserves abutting farming zones to preserve biodiversity.
Cohen also said Florida has significant advantages over his native Israel, as well as states like California, where water rights and usage are regulated far more tightly in a rigid, top-down manner.
The summit coincides with the release of a report by Tony Villamil from the Washington Economics Group, who used data from the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University. The report focuses on challenges facing Palm Beach County farmers, including the possible end to the Cuban embargo, as well as challenges such as citrus greening, which has hit Florida’s citrus crop exceedingly hard.
The summit is set to run from 8:15 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Wednesday at the Palm Beach County Convention Center.
The full agenda can be found here.