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Farm acres shrink as land prices soar

Developers can afford to pay top dollar for farmland, which drives away farmers who lease.

By JOY DAVIS-PLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

With real estate one of Hernando County's most valuable commodities, many see a gradual shift in land use as the beginning of the end for the area's agricultural heritage.

Competition between farmers who lease the tracts they work and developers, who can afford to pay top dollar for the relatively flat, open land, is contributing to the decline.

"The farmers who lease are not in a position to buy that land in competition with a developer who might pay top dollar," said Donna Peacock, acting director for the county's cooperative extension service.

There are no government grants for farmers who want to buy the land they lease, Peacock said, and many consider a year successful if they can count a modest profit.

"People who have large tracts are having to choose," Peacock said. "Farming is hard, and if they can make more money on development, they very well may sell."

Brooksville dairy owner and hay farmer George Alvarez is a case in point.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Alvarez, who owns his own land and considers selling it as an option for the future. "If the landowner didn't have the opportunity to sell the land when they're ready to get out of the business, they'd have no retirement."

Although the land he leases is not currently up for sale, Brooksville farmer David Frazier said he knows some agriculture will die off as the county grows.

"I'm sure the land we're on would be sold if someone were to come along and make a good enough offer on it," he said.

As traditional forms of agriculture struggle, Peacock said, she sees a shift in the type of interest in the lifestyle.

"I see people coming from outside the state and buying 5-acre plots, then asking our office what they can grow to become income-producing," she said.

Usually, their plans include alternative crops such as blueberries and mushrooms, or rabbits, goats and sheep, with an intent to sell to specialty markets.

"In part, they're doing it as a hobby," she said. "Most, I think, have an idealized vision of the rural existence."

Although smaller tracts of land are still somewhat affordable, most would-be farmers fail to do their homework, Peacock said. Along with Florida's warm climate come growing conditions and problems that people don't always anticipate.

"People come in new to these crops, and there are a lot of things they don't consider," Peacock said. "Especially when it comes to marketing, and that gets them into trouble."

For instance, many restaurant chains will not buy from a grower who cannot guarantee a year-round supply of produce.

"They may make some money, but making a profit is a whole different thing," she said. "They're certainly not going to get rich."

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