Florida teens join agricultural water conversations

July 19, 2023

Ashley Cook grew up enjoying recreational time on the water, but production agriculture is her heritage. Her daughter, Braley Hines, is the sixth generation of Cook Farms Produce in Gilchrist County, Florida. They cultivate vegetables, watermelon and deer corn.

Five years ago, the family purchased property on the coast about an hour from their farm, in the fishing and boating community of Horseshoe Beach. Braley’s grandfather struck a friendship with another grandfather. The two traded fresh produce and seafood, and their granddaughters—Braley and Abbygael Whitehead, now teenagers—also became friends.

When Cook was invited to join the Healthy Farms, Healthy Bays Initiative, a project of the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group, she knew she wanted to get the two girls involved. They model exactly what the initiative seeks to foster: meaningful, collaborative connections between upland farmers and downstream aquaculturists.

“I just kept watching these girls and their drive and determination,” says Cook, noting that both were selected as Florida FFA star award winners last year. “It just restores my faith. I’m very much a believer that our future is in the next generation. They truly are our most valuable, bountiful harvest, and we have to invest in them for the future of our industry.”

Braley, a senior at Bell High School, discovered her love for agriculture during time with her grandparents on the farm. She helped plant and pick crops, like jalapeno peppers and watermelon. However, she most enjoys connecting the public to farm life through photography and writing. She manages social media for the family’s guided turkey hunt business and, after graduation, plans to pursue a degree in agricultural communications with a minor in public policy at the University of Florida.

Abby, a sophomore at Dixie County High School, is the fifth generation and a part-owner of her family’s seafood business, JanaLou’s Seafood, in Horseshoe Beach. They are best known for their soft-shell crabs but also harvest and sell scallops, shrimp, mullet, flounder, grouper and other seafood. Abby is involved in all aspects of the family operation, from going out on the boat with her grandfather to packaging and customer service.

Abby is also interested in science. Her agriscience fair project on how temperature affects the rate soft-shell crabs shed their shells earned her a spot in the National FFA Agriscience Fair competition this fall. She found crabs shed their shells within seven to 25 minutes, with a one degree increase in temperature adding three minutes to that time.

“One is a steward of the land and the other is a steward of the water, but their underlying values are the same,” Cook says. “That’s where their connection was made.”

Braley and Abby will join conversations taking place through the Healthy Farms, Healthy Bays Initiative, which aims to enhance the sustainability of agricultural operations and improve water quality, fisheries and habitat in key Gulf Coast bays and estuaries by building on existing restoration plans and projects and using best available science and leading technical advisors.

The initiative is composed of both land and aquatic stakeholders and led by co-chairs Randall Dasher, an inland Florida farmer, and Ed Chiles, whose water-front restaurant serves clams and other seafood along with the produce he grows at Gamble Creek Farms.

This week, the inland farmer group is meeting in Live Oak, Florida, and the downstream aquatic producers are meeting in Cedar Key. They will come together in August to build a roadmap that identifies needed changes in land use practices, research, education and policy to keep Florida agriculture profitable while providing nutritious food, clean energy and ecosystem services, such a wildlife habitat, water storage and filtration, and carbon sequestration.

The discussions currently include topics including:

  • Technology and tools (including artificial intelligence and modeling verification) for monitoring improvements in production efficiency.
  • Cost-share, technical assistance, and funding for research and equipment to implement improved processes/techniques.
  • Genetic research for improved consistency, resiliency and produce quality.
  • Waste management.
  • Water quality and nutrient management.
  • Water quality and water reuse.
  • Changing weather patterns and increased temperatures.
  • Land conservation and fractionation due to increased urbanization.
  • Ecosystem services market mechanisms.

“There is a connection between the two communities [farming and fishing],” Cook says. “And we can forge those relationships together.”

Solutions from the Land is excited to see two FFA members in the room, as their energy and passion is sure to inspire the whole group. We cannot lose sight of the reason why we continually seek progress in agriculture: for our families and our future generations.

“It’s exciting to be able to broaden my horizons and look at new things,” Braley adds. “This is a really great opportunity for me to see the importance of the agriculture industry and the different sides that go into it, with the bays and the farms, and how they intermingle.”

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