Florida Uses Smart Maps to Support Farmers during COVID-19 (2023)

Florida's farmers have been hit especially hard by the economic impacts of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

With the shutdown of large-scale produce buyers such as restaurants, hotels, cruise lines, school districts, and food processing facilities, farmers are struggling to sell their crops. As demand for farm-grown commodities continues to plummet, perishables are being left to rot in the fields.

"As COVID-19 continues to upend our economy, access to a safe, healthy, secure domestic food supply is critical. That depends on our farmers, who are facing significant crop losses and unprecedented market challenges," stated Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) commissioner Nicole Fried in her press release on April 20, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the vital role Florida's farmers play in the local food supply chain. Florida is the nation's second-largest producer of fresh seasonal fruit and vegetable crops, which include lettuce, blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelons, peppers, and cucumbers.

While the full impact that COVID-19 has had on the Florida agriculture industry is not yet known, the FDACS has estimated crop revenue loss to exceed $522.5 million, based on data reported by the state's growers.

As the spread of the outbreak was realized across Florida, Fried recognized the urgent need to bridge the supply-and-demand gap for the state's farmers. She immediately put a plan in place to create a platform using geographic information system (GIS) technology to connect potential buyers with farmers and other producers of Florida-grown commodities. The Florida Farm To You project was initiated as part of the state's Keep Florida Growing initiative.

"With COVID-19 deeply affecting Florida's agriculture, our state's second-largest economic driver, we're launching a new one-stop web page to support consumers and our agriculture community," said Fried. "We're bringing together Floridians and their food producers in one place to share state and federal resources, ways to buy and sell farm-fresh Florida products, and information on steps we're taking to keep Florida growing."

A Collaborative Effort to Address Urgent Needs

The FDACS needed to quickly assemble a team of experts to build the new responsive web page that could help Florida mitigate the losses being suffered by farmers and food producers.To do so, the FDACS GIS team needed to meet the technical requirements to house the extensive amount of information envisioned for the Florida Farm To You project.

In addition to the task of building the web page, the FDACS Office of External Affairs and Office of the Commissioner requested an interactive map be created to visually display the locations of homegrown products available for consumers.

"Our team's initial challenge was the time-sensitive nature of the request. We needed to quickly create a new interface equipped with tools, such as interactive GIS maps and apps, that could encompass the wide variety of commodities grown locally—and the various dynamics of each grower/producer's business," said Sara Wander, enterprise GIS and web team manager, FDACS.

An Interactive Experience for Local Residents

The economic impact of COVID-19 on the agricultural sector is inspiring new, innovative solutions utilizing advanced GIS technology. Smart maps and apps are supporting local farmers by helping to deliver Florida-grown commodities to consumers.

A diverse interagency team of experts was assembled to fulfill the commissioner's time-sensitive request for the interactive commodities maps. The lead developer in the Office of Agriculture Technology Services (OATS)—collaborating with the GIS team and technology experts from FDACS—immediately began work on the new project. UsingArcGIS Online, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that allows users to depict data in interactive web maps, staff were able to build the first iteration of a new map in just three days.

Wander and her team began work on the data side of the commodities exchange map project. Once they determined the criteria of information necessary for the map, the GIS team created a database view with address validation, producing latitude and longitude values. The team utilized a SQL server spatial query to geo-enable their location data, providing the foundation of the new commodities exchange map.

"ArcGIS was the right solution at the right time. It allowed for the quick deployment of intuitive web mapping solutions we could easily embed in web pages, which can be easily used by the public," said Wander.

Aligning with the commissioner's plan to address the economic impacts of COVID-19 on the agriculture sector, the state launched the Florida Farm To You commodities exchange map in early April. The searchable map has enabled local consumers, buyers, and organizations such as food banks and nonprofits to easily locate farm-fresh products from Florida's growers.

Upon the map's launch, FDACS senior staff members, External Affairs personnel, and marketing teams with established relationships in the local agriculture industry began their promotional outreach efforts. They contacted the associations that represent Florida's 47,000 farms, encouraging them to sign up for the Florida Farm To You project and share their available commodities on the new web map.

Local farmers are taking advantage of this unique opportunity to advertise their goods directly to consumers. A short, web-based form on the Florida Farm To You web page allows them to submit information about their available products. With each submission, the FDACS commodities database information is fed directly into the map, stamping the farmer's location for consumers to see.

"I am really grateful that we had all of the Esri tools at our disposal, already set up—to be able to leverage these kinds of solutions really quickly," said Wander. "This experience has been very rewarding. The long hours we put in to make urgent requests happen—to see them play out and actually help people is very rewarding for our team."

Florida Uses Smart Maps to Support Farmers during COVID-19 (1)This interactive commodities exchange map allows consumers to quickly and easily find the exact location of any nearby participating farm, with colorful icons identifying the type of commodities.

Maps' Role in Moving Florida-Grown Products from Fields to Consumers

The interactive commodities exchange map on the Florida Farm To You web page has proved to be a valuable tool, bridging the gap in declining demand with plentiful supply by directly connecting Florida's farmers with consumers.

Users can now quickly and easily find the exact location of any nearby participating farm by entering their address, city, or ZIP code in the search field. Colorful icons help identify the type of commodities—ranging from fresh produce and dairy products to seafood and poultry—available at each location.

"The number of farmers promoting products on the map shows positive support for the platform and indicates a need for this type of matchmaking between producers and buyers," said Donna Watson, FDACS bureau chief of nutrition, education, and outreach.

Hundreds of farmers across the Sunshine State have listed over 380 kinds of farm-fresh products on the smart map. Since its launch in April, the Florida Farm To You commodities exchange web page has registered nearly 493,000 visits, with over 272,000 total map interactions.

"The new platform has been a tremendous hit. We're seeing a lot of positive response and a lot of people going online. We are very grateful for the connection we're making with the consumers to the farmers directly," said Fried.

The cross-departmental team members continue to build on their solution, adding new features and functionality using ArcGIS. Feedback from Florida Farm To You users—as well as from transportation companies eager to help agriculture producers—has resulted in new transportation maps being added to the web page.

Similar to how farmers submit their available-products lists to be shared with consumers via the commodities exchange map, transportation companies can easily submit descriptions of their truck services for inclusion on the web page. After doing so, the companies are added to the searchable interactive Florida Transportation Services For Commodities map, where farmers can easily locate and contact them to get assistance in transporting crops from the field.

"We have been contacted directly by consumers using the map. We have been able to allocate 3–5 percent of sales from our food service clientele for oranges/grapefruit direct to consumers in Miami-Dade County. We appreciate any help that FDACS provides in connecting companies such as ours to a broader consumer base to help us survive during these troubling times," said Gabriel Bernal, executive vice president, Seasons Farm Fresh & All-American Citrus in Miami, Florida.

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