Tour Celebrates Santa Rosa County Ag Heritage
By Trent Mathews
Trent Mathews is a fourth generation farmer in Florida’s Santa Rosa County, producing soybeans, corn, wheat, peanuts and beef cattle on his family farm. He has worked for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service since 2001 and has been the district conservationist for Santa Rosa County since 2008 helping farmers, ranchers and forest landowners conserve their resources.
Farming and ranching has changed a lot in five decades. In October 250 people experienced firsthand the scope and importance of agriculture during the Santa Rosa County 50th Anniversary Farm Tour. Visitors were entertained by cutting horse demonstrations at Hayes Ranch, strolled through a small sustainable farm offering “glamorous” tent camping at Coldwater Gardens, picked cotton bolls in a farmer’s field and stopped at the Panhandle Growers to honor the John Davy and Glen Strange families, who were awarded the Farm Family of the Year. The grand finale was enjoying the county’s famous boiled peanuts at Holland Farms.
I have been involved with the farm tour in an official capacity for the past nine years. It’s a longstanding tradition that I have been involved with my entire life. My family’s farm served as the final tour stop for more than 30 years.
The planning process takes approximately six to seven months. The committee meets monthly to discuss host farms, nominate and select the Santa Rosa County Farm Family, arrange all the logistical details, lay out the tour route and compile crop records and economic impact data.
Participants of this tour are from varied backgrounds but most live in town and have no connection to a farm or farmers. The idea is to introduce non-agriculture citizens to the concepts of farming and the importance of agriculture to our local economy.
According to the 2012 US Ag Census, Santa Rosa County ranks in the upper 50 percent of all US counties in total agricultural production. The county is 32nd in total ag sales statewide and ranks number two in peanut and cotton production. The challenge for local farmers in the past few years has been the reduction in price they receive for their commodities. For example, the price paid to farmers for peanuts fell from more than $1,000 per ton three years ago to below $400 per ton last year. With fixed input costs this creates a situation where farmers have to make a “bumper” crop in order to have any chance of realizing a profit. The outlook can change drastically from year to year in agriculture. Last year the future looked very bleak but with adequate rains and bountiful crops this year there is more excitement moving forward.
Fifty years ago most farms were small, 100 acres or less, with a wide variety of operation types, from dairies and hog operations, to corn, cotton, peanuts, peanuts and even things we rarely see today like sheep and Tung oil trees. Today our farms have grown larger, with many being more than 1,000 acres.
Fortunately, we have maintained the family farm in Santa Rosa County with almost all our operations still owned and managed by local families. Production became much more monogamous during the 1980s and 1990s with nearly all farms growing cotton and peanuts. In recent years we have seen a trend back toward farm diversification with farmers adding more livestock, small scale fruit and vegetable production and a growing agritourism industry.
Santa Rosa County Farm Tour Committee hosts the farm tour. This committee consists of UF-IFAS Extension, USDA- FSA, USDA-NRCS, 3 Rivers RC&D, University of Florida WFREC, Santa Rosa County Farm Bureau, Farm Credit of NWFL and United Bank. The event is sponsored by many local businesses.
A tour like this gives me a greater appreciation of how blessed I am to have the opportunity to work on farms and with farmers every day. There is a tremendous demand from the public to gain access to farmers and a true interest in learning about what farmers do on a daily basis. People look to farmers with amazement and feel a real connection with them when they leave this tour. These are the people I’m employed to serve and it really is an honor.