Wilton Simpson, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM yesterday morning to talk about what’s been going on in the state.
While the rainy season isn’t all that fun in paradise, the water is much needed.
Simpson said, “I think the ag community is welcoming in this rain. I know in central Florida. I think we’re still at about a 10 or 11 inch deficit of rain this year. So we’re finally getting some good rain in central Florida also this week. So it’s welcome. It is creating a week or two here or there difference in when crops are maturing because of moisture. That’s obviously a very important function of having crops is being able to get moisture to them.”
With the early start to the legislative session in January, the Department of Agriculture is thinking ahead.
Simpson said, “There was I think, $10 million put in the budget for artificial reef. I know we’re going to continue to work on that to get some additional resources this year. We’re looking forward to not only the reef there in the Keys, but making sure that our water system continues to get upgraded. When I was Senate president I put $20 million in the budget. I think at that time, they told me they thought it was a $200 million project. So clearly, that’s something that legislature is working on this year. I know that’s a direct reflection of all the support and just the great hard working people that are in Monroe County.”
The Senate Agriculture Committee has been meeting this week.
Simpson said, “We’re trying to make sure that the farm bill that we put together this year that they hope to pass in December, and when I say hope, we always have to remember this is the federal government. But we’ve been working with them to make sure that farming, the farming community, and Florida, in general is not left out of the farm bill. We have 300 commodities here, very specialized. Not only do we need research, we need the insurance, we need things that will really prop up, and when I say prop up, a minimum support level for Florida agriculture to make sure that we have a vibrant supply chain here in the state of Florida.
Recovery from Hurricane Idalia still continues.
Simpson said, “We really are looking at our clam production. By the way, Florida is one of the top three clam producers in the country. We have very vibrant aquaculture in the state of Florida, very rapidly growing aquaculture, which obviously is under your Department of Agriculture. Part of the money we’re seeking is to help recover from the damage caused by Idalia to that industry. We’re looking to expand aquaculture all around the state, not just in the Big Bend area, obviously we love our Big Bend area and a lot of oysters there, a lot of clams.”
A grant/interest free loan program for the Idalia effected areas is in the process of coming together.
Simpson said, “We’ve had to go in there with our crews and clear roads and get the power back on. That’s been done. The roads are clear, the power’s on, but it’s going to take years now to rebuild some of the structures. They were, I believe several million birds of chicken barns that were flattened in Idalia. There were many miles of fence that was taken down. Many, many crops were lost or either stunted at 60 percent or 50 percent of what normal yield would have been. So we’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of us. But it’s something that we’re trying to get right in real time. I’ll give you an example. Michael is five years ago, and there’s still 40 to 50 percent of the fuel on the ground from that hurricane, and that’s unconscionable, but again, it’s generally the speed at which your federal government moves to help bring resources to do the cleanup. Part two of that is the emphasis that the agriculture community and the Department of Agriculture puts on getting cleaned back up and normalized. We’re going to push very hard to get these farmers the relief they need in our forestry industry. We will also plant, Georgia Pacific, in that same area of Taylor County. We’re losing 2500 jobs in the area. We’re trying to do the right thing to keep our supply chain to be the most vibrant in the country. A lot of times that’s protecting small farmers. The more and more farming gets consolidated, more and more likely, there’ll be a chance of a supply chain break. We’re working with all of our farmers, we’re very proud of the progress we’re making, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”
The timber industry was definitely hard hit.
Simpson said, “That’s exactly right. A lot of times, we don’t think of foresters, and timber as part of your agriculture community. Clearly it is. Paper products, lumber to build structures with, lumber period, all come from our forests. We have a great Florida Forest Association within the Department of Agriculture. They do a tremendous job. We do a lot of controlled burns in Florida, on private lands and public lands. Sometimes we get criticized. But the reality is, we’ve been blessed that we have not had a catastrophic fire like they’ve had out west or in Canada and these other areas. The better that we manage our forests, the better those results will be. When you have a hurricane that damages 300,000 acres of property and forests, we have to get that cleaned up very quickly or this time next year, you have a lightning strike, and you could have a fire there that blossoms into 50 or 100,000 acres or more. That’s what we’re trying to prevent. It creates a lot of jobs here in the state of Florida. We’re going to work very hard on that area to get that cleaned up. It’ll probably take 18 months or 24 months to get it cleaned up. But certainly it’s not going to be from lack of effort.”
Meetings about the wildlife corridor have also been occurring recently.
Simpson said, “If people want to know what defines the wildlife corridor, I’m going to give you the big definition. If you Google a map of the state of Florida at nighttime, you will see all the beautiful lights around the city that you live in, and you’ll easily be able to identify those. Everywhere it’s dark on that map is a wildlife corridor today. Everywhere it’s dark on that map is where we recharge our aquifer. Everywhere it’s dark is where we grow our food on that map. It’s very important. The Rural and Family Lands dollars gives us the ability to go in and buy those development rights, so those lands are preserved forever. We’re not talking about buying land. We’re talking about buying development rights, those private landowners and farmers would maintain that land, grow their crops, grow their food, and then we would be the beneficiary of that. So there’s a big difference from buying land, where then the state has to maintain that land into the future, versus the Rural and Family Lands where we buy the development rights, leave those properties in private hands and allow them to farm it and take care of it and all the environmental benefits. We’re working very hard on the wildlife corridor. I know it’s very important to the entire state.”
Fresh fruits and vegetables from Florida are also important.
Simpson said, “The Fresh from Florida is something that has been really reenergized in the last 12 months, advertising fresh from Florida products and making sure that the Floridians know the seasonality of all of our products that would be sold through Fresh from Florida. What we’re trying to do is drive value for Florida farmers. What we know is that if someone goes in a store and they see tomatoes from, pick a country, Mexico, or tomatoes from Florida, they are willing, they want to buy those Florida tomatoes first, generally. They also were willing to pay a little more for Florida tomatoes over any other country or any other fruits and vegetables that you may be there and see. So it’s something that the Department of Agriculture is really trying to drive value for the Florida farmer in this case, but we’re very proud of the commodities we produce here in the state. We’re very proud of our agriculture in the state of Florida and Fresh from Florida goes a long way of advertising that. You almost have to go past the Fresh from Florida ad to get to a different type of product. That’s the environment we’re trying to create here in Florida. We want to make sure that our Florida farmers are getting the benefit of the department’s efforts and their efforts to advertise what we’re producing here in Florida. The best way to have a vibrant farming community is to buy those products that are produced here so those farmers can continue in business.”
Will the additional rains at the time contribute to agriculture runoff?
Simpson said, “When I first got in the Senate 11 years ago, I did the Everglades Restoration bill. My time in the Senate, I was the majority leader when we got the funding for the C43 and 44 reservoirs. Also as president, we really push the northern storage piece. So what’s happening is 70 percent of the nutrient load is coming in from the northern Everglades. It’s coming into the lake and then being dispersed through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie mostly today in creating the blue green algae and other environmental concerns. If you stop the nutrient load coming in from north of the lake, and once we get the northern storage components completed, it will stop about 70 percent of that water going in, because what we do, we grabbed the water north of the lake, we treated the drinking water standards and then by using ASR wells, we put it down into the aquifer. In other words, we avoid the whole untimely releases. And then part two of that, which is really neat is let’s say that we get into drought times like we’ve been seeing more and more this year, and we need water. We can reverse those ASR wells, pull that water right back up and put it right back into the ecosystem, not only for population use, or industry use, agriculture and also our environment. I’ve worked very hard on the Everglades restoration and it’s something that was a passion of mine my entire time in the Senate. We have spent billions of dollars on these projects. Here’s the hard reality is the C44 reservoir is completed, but it will take a few years to get up to full capacity. The C43, these are the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie reservoirs, won’t be completed until next year. The contractor that was hired a decade ago was not able to complete it. So now we have another contractor. They’re finishing it. That project within a few years will be online 100 percent. The EAA reservoir, the southern reservoir, is probably 10 years out. These are massive projects. It’s not from lack of spending. In this case, it’s I think a 27,000 acre system, and that’ll store water and it will be able to send more water south of the lake. All of those projects are very important. What I do know is that when we get the northern storage piece done, which it won’t be done for another decade, we will substantially reduce the releases from Lake Okeechobee, east and west, and take the pressure off of those ecosystems. We’re very proud of that. We’re doing these projects 10, 15 years sooner than originally projected. It’s something that is very important to agriculture because agriculture is a national security issue. When you think of national security, we know oil is, we know that we have strategic supplies of oil in case there’s a war or major disruption. Think about if there was no food in the grocery stores just for one week. You’d have total chaos in this country. What if we didn’t have food for a month in the grocery store? Of course, you’d have people starving to death.”
Several foreign countries are no longer able to purchase agricultural land in Florida.
Simpson explained, “There’s seven countries, China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, several others, they can no longer buy land and agricultural land anywhere in the state of Florida, or anywhere around our military installations. But now I’m in a lawsuit. Your Department of Agriculture is in a lawsuit defending that law, and the Biden DOJ is on the other side. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Now we’re going to win that lawsuit. Sometimes we lose at lower courts, but when this gets to the Supreme Court, we’re going to win that lawsuit. I’m very confident that it is a another step of protecting our supply chain to make sure our foreign enemies can’t come in and buy up our valuable agricultural land or land around our military installations, where they will obviously be spying on us potentially. We’re very proud of the law. It’s something that we pushed and got finished last year. It went into effect July 1st. Where those foreign enemies currently have land holdings, they have just a few years to surplus that land. So within less than five years, we should not have any of that type of land in the state of Florida at all, where our foreign enemies would control our land.”