Let’s check in with the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture

Wilton Simpson, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about what’s been going on in the state.

The importance of wildfire preparedness can certainly be seen in Canada and California.

Simpson said, “I feel really bad for Canadians now, just like Californians, with all the wildfires that they’ve had. In Florida, we take a lot of pride that we have a very robust forestry burn program and to try to prevent those very large wildfires from getting out of hand. It is lightning season. And we are very fortunate because most of the state was in a drought up through May. And so we’re starting to get quite a bit of rain in the state now, or at least volumes around the state, from south to north.”

Sometimes with the rain, lightning can be included and that’s how forest fires can start.

Simpson said, “I’ve been traveling the state looking at our forest departments to make sure they have the right equipment, the right team and everything there. We’ve got a great group. We’ve got the best in the country, our foresters, and they do a tremendous job. But we want to make sure that we’re giving them all the support they need to do their job with. To give you an example, we have some forestry divisions that are in downtowns now, that need to be moved, because it’s hard for them to get to a fire because they’re fighting city traffic getting out to our forests. So, now over the summertime, we’re doing an assessment to make sure we’re in the best locations to fight fires quicker. The quicker we can get there, the smaller that fire will be, and the better chance we have of saving life and property. And so it’s something we’re working very hard on and but again, with lightning season coming, it’s another round of fire season.”

Farmers markets are also in full swing around the state and that’s a great way to distribute fresh produce to the public.

Simpson said, “As we visit our farmers markets, their primary function is to make sure they’re supporting your local community farmers where all the fresh fruits and vegetables come in, and then can be distributed. I’ve been visiting our farmers markets as we traveled the state, and making sure that, again, we’re compiling lists of some improvements that may need to be made in these areas, so that we can continue to have a robust supply chain in the state of Florida. And when you think about the supply chain, as we went through with COVID, and how fragile the supply chain is, we need to make sure we’re making every effort to make sure that our supply chain for our food is not compromised and our farmers markets throughout the state is a big part of that. We’re trying to make sure that we’re getting the best value for the taxpayer and at the same time, protect that supply chain.”

Thankfully, egg prices have been dropping.

Simpson said egg prices “We do have avian flu in Florida, but they’re all in backyard flocks, and backyard birds. At this point, we’ve been very fortunate not to get into one of our egg supply operations. And then because if it gets in there, you have to destroy the entire flock and that takes time. That is where that supply would spike, or the lack of supply, which would cause the price to spike. So you’re seeing a normalization, what generally happens after a major disruption like that, like with avian flu, initially, people may go out and put more backyard chickens in or they may say, hey, I’m not going to eat eggs if they’re $5, a dozen, or $3 a dozen. So they go to alternatives. Then, of course, the supply and demand comes back into balance, and the price goes back down to what I believe will stabilize somewhere around maybe $2 a dozen in the store. The challenge is the cost and the inflation that has been driven into the cost of producing those dozen eggs. That cost factor now is nearly double what it was 10 years ago, the packaging, the equipment that it takes to operate.”

In 2001, to put together a million bird egg facility would cost about $12 a bird, which would be about $12 million. Today, the same exact operation would cost about $40 million.

Simpson said, “So when you think it’s four times as expensive in 20 years just to build the equipment and the housing around the facilities, that’s what’s driving your costs. Of course, we don’t talk about inflation enough, but, you know, we’ve been living with it an elevated rate for the last 18 months, and primarily caused by the federal government’s ineptness. So here we are having to deal with that in our food supply. The things that your farmers can do, using best management practices, preserving water, using less fertilizers are all coming into effect to help, but it’s really putting us at a major disadvantage to our foreign competitors. When I talk about food being a national security issue, these are some of the things we’re talking about. We certainly don’t want to be an importer of eggs. We don’t want to be an importer, a net importer on anything. We want to make sure that we are a robust agriculture state and country and to do that, we have to make sure that our farmers are in a position to be able to survive.”

Environmental protection is also critical for helping maintain our economy.

Simpson said, “We all need drinking water. We all need water tourism. Still, it’s the main driver of the economy in normal time, and we enjoy our Everglades, we enjoy our Keys. We’re very proud of our accomplishments on the environment in the Keys, with the aqueduct improvements with essentially the sewer operations, the salt water, or the desalinization plants that we’ve helped fund to make sure that the Keys have a robust freshwater system. All over Florida, our water is our signature. In Florida, we have focused on our environment the last 10 years, not the last two or three, but the last 10. When you look at the large programs that we’ve done in and around the Everglades, to make that water system better, the reservoirs of southern reservoir, the northern storage, all of those projects come at the cost of billions of dollars. Of course, that greatly affects the Keys because all of that flows south. We’re working every day to make sure we have the most safe, affordable, abundant water supply in the world.”

Water usage has been reduced from 40 percent to 80 percent by using artificial intelligence, as well as drip irrigation, spray head nozzles and by controlling how much water is needed.

Simpson said, “We are educating our farmers on their best management practices. Remember, Florida farmers have to compete with the world. So we have to be much more efficient in the state of Florida. One thousand people a day moving here, raising property values, inflation, regulatory structure primarily from the federal government. So we’re fighting to stay in business.”

When a farmer goes out of business, the land typically becomes a commercial structure or housing structures – it’s likely not going back to a farm.

Simpson noted, “A lot of solar panels are taking up a lot of good farmland these days. We’re starting to work with our utilities to say hey, why don’t we put those structures at 10 feet in the air instead of four feet in the air? Then we could actually have farming activities under those solar facilities.”

If solar facilities could also be used for agricultural purposes, it would double the use of the land.

Simpson said, “We’re working very hard, making sure that all of these concerns are addressed.”

Governor Ron DeSantis is running for president of the United States and Simpson has worked closely with the governor.

He said, “During a war, you don’t lose your constitutional rights during a war. You never lose your constitutional rights in this state. The fact is, is that even with a worldwide pandemic, you do not lose your constitutional rights. The notion that we were being locked down or totally had to be locked down was completely counter to that. The governor did a good job in the state of Florida of helping lead us through that period. When you think about a worldwide pandemic, when it was extremely unpopular to open the state, the governor was really getting lambasted from mostly national media and demagogues from national media. But he stood his ground. If I know anything about this governor, maybe the hits keep coming opponents around the around the country, but when you do the analysis of the governor’s work here in the state of Florida, we have a balanced budget. I would say that the state of Florida has done an exceptional job, not only of balancing its budget, but making sure that we can take care of our environment. Our education system in the state of Florida has been ranked number one five years in a row by World News Report. Our university and college system is the most affordable system anywhere in the country. I know the governor I know he’s very capable, a very smart and intelligent person and I believe that he will get that message out. Then voters can make their decision based on these facts and based on real work, because this governor in trying times whether it was a hurricane or whether it was a worldwide pandemic, proved that he had the metal to move the state forward.”