Residents in southwest Florida hunger for more information about the region’s agriculture, according to research by the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education.
Participants in six focus groups in the five-county region said they valued agriculture’s economic, nutritious and historical impacts on the area but need more information to address concerns over environmental and labor issues.
As the final installment of a two-part collaboration with the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, PIE Center researchers asked residents about their attitudes and perceptions of the region’s agriculture, as well as their opinions on the formation of an agricultural organization in southwest Florida and specific messages about the agricultural industry.
PIE Center Director Tracy Irani said the attitudes expressed in the focus groups mirrored the results in the PIE Center’s survey, conducted earlier this year. Respondents in Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties shared a positive outlook on the region’s agriculture but more than three-fourths of respondents said their opinions would improve if they had more information.
“Our research continually shows a widening gap between those who produce food and those who consume it,” she says. “This study, however, shows that people are truly invested and interested in agriculture, and they really want to support the industry at the local and regional level.”
Throughout the focus groups, participants discussed their desire to become more involved with agriculture, primarily by visiting farms and getting to know farmers. PIE Center researchers suggested that agricultural organizations and leaders can build consumer trust and relationships by attending and sponsoring community events and hosting families or organizations at their property.
Similarly, the focus groups uncovered an opportunity for agriculture to communicate with future generations of consumers. School gardens, farm field trips and after-school activities are all ways for agriculture to build a presence with younger consumers, according to master’s student Caroline Roper, who led the study.
“Participants don’t feel that youth are learning about agricultural production practices,” she said. “Agricultural leaders have a chance to teach them how to apply that knowledge in a practical, direct way by becoming more engaged with them.”
Participants responded favorably about the formation of an organization that would represent southwest Florida’s agriculture, saying that it could create a presence in local schools, establish quality standards and provide information about seasonality or growing practices.
PIE Center researchers also tested four specific message strategies with the focus groups to get a better understanding of participants’ interest in learning about agriculture. Roper created mock newspaper clippings and asked participants for their reactions to the headline and what type of image they would like to see with the article.
Participants had the most positive reactions to the headlines, “Get to know your farmer” and “Local families, local food, local future,” which they saw as an invitation for community members to become involved with local farmers and something that would have a direct impact on their lifestyle. Participants were least favorable of the headline, “Take a look into your food.”
The Gulf Citrus Growers Association will use the completed study to work within the local agricultural community to develop an informative campaign to strengthen the relationship between the region’s agriculture, opinion leaders and consumer interests, according to Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association.
“This PIE Center research, including the electronic survey of more than 500 southwest Florida participants and the six ‘urban-oriented’ consumer focus groups truly provides the regional agricultural community with many key findings on which to base an effective communications and education program,” he said.