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 increased temperatures in the summer can affect not only agriculture, but the animals.
Simpson said, “How do we keep our animals cooler when you have such a high heat or high heat index? And so I’ll give you an example in the egg business. This goes back to the 80s. I think we’re much better at it today. We use evaporative cooling. What that looks like is on the side of your egg barns, they look like radiators, but they’re perforated cardboard pieces like a radiator type material, and cool water goes through there. Now what you’re doing is you’re moving air at 500 feet a minute through that cool cell pad. Then that cool water, of course, brings the temperature down in that building.”
In central Florida it will be 95 degrees today. The temperature inside an agricultural building using evaporated cooling will be 85 degrees and because the air is moving 500 feet per minute, it will feel like 75 degrees.
Simpson explained, “When you’re dealing with agriculture, and you’re dealing with animals, obviously under a lot of stress, they will not produce. Whether it’s eggs or milk or beef or what have you, they will not produce as well if they’re under stress. So by using these cooling techniques, you eliminate that stress out of their lives and then you can continue at a higher level of production, which of course, as you’ve seen with commodities, the way they are today and inflation the way it is today, anything that we can do to stay at a higher level of production is going to continue to help drive down prices. It’s something that is very important to our food production.”
There have also been some innovations in solar power as well.
Simpson said, “We’re doing several things this summer. One of the things I’m doing is I’m getting out visiting all of our offices. I’ve been the Ag Commissioner now for six months, and we’re trying to get around to all of our offices this year so I can see the boots on the ground, the people who are making all of this happen for us protecting our agriculture. One of the things we did this year in session was we said that our foreign enemies can no longer buy agricultural land here in the state of Florida. So we believe we’ve protected ag land from our foreign enemies, which is very important when you’re thinking about our supply chain, well into the future.”
This year, the department will take a look at the solar fields.
Simpson said, “If we can re-design those, instead of putting them low to the ground, four or so feet off the ground, five feet off the ground, can we put them at 10 feet off the ground, and then utilize that property for agriculture for cattle grazing, or growing crops under these panels? I believe with very little engineering, so in other words, very little pulse difference relative to that field, we should be able to do that. I know it’s a big concern around the state, how many tens of thousands of acres are we going to give up to solar farms? I think this may be part of the solution to our long term needs for good agricultural land. So we’re looking at how do we continue to make sure that Florida thrives with enough ag land to keep our food costs and our production in the United States?”
The Rural and Family Lands Protection Act is continuing.
Simpson said, “The Rural and Family Lands is where we, the department, go and we buy development rights from our farmers, and these are willing sellers and what they’ve decided is as a farming family and farming entity, that they want to keep their lands and agriculture in perpetuity. Obviously, we come in, we buy those development rights and that then guarantees Florida a long-term viability of having enough land to grow our food.”
The deadline to enter the program is July 27. Anyone that has agricultural land and agricultural production can apply.
Simpson said, “They will be getting evaluated. We fully expect before the end of the year to have $1 billion dollars worth of potential properties. So think about this, let’s say we go buy your property. So now the state of Florida owns your property. Now we’ve taken it out of production, in most cases, we now have to go get more money from the legislature to take care of that land. We’ve taken it off the local tax rolls. When you do this program under the Rural and Family Lands, the property stays on the tax rolls, which means it’s supporting your local governments, the farmers take care of that land and grow our food on that land, which means that the state doesn’t have to spend more money doing that.”
The wildlife corridor is actually critical to the future of the state.
Simpson explained, “Google a map of the state of Florida at nighttime. You will see all the beautiful lights around the state, you’ll see where you live, you’ll be able to beautiful cities. Everywhere it’s dark on that map is the wildlife corridor. The wildlife corridor and the Rural Family Lands Program overlap 99 percent. Where it’s dark on that map is where our water recharges our aquifer. It’s where our wildlife traverses the state. It’s where farmers grow your food. So the importance of this program, I can’t speak highly enough of.”
This time of year, wildfires can run rampant.
Simpson said, “Lightning strikes are the primary source of forest fires. We are starting to get some rain now. We still have a deficit of rain in most of the state. So we still have to be village vigilant, but with the thunderstorms cranking up this time of year, if someone sees anything, with lightning, with fires, please call your local authorities. You have a great team in your forestry to help put those forest fires out. We have great local firefighters that are working every day to put many of these fires out. We coordinate very well with them at your Department of Agriculture. So it’s very important that we stay on top of that and make sure that we have minimal loss of property, and hopefully no loss of life, due to a fire.”
As an example, the Canadian wildfires have been affecting a large part of the northeastern part of the country.
Simpson said, “The reality is that we in Florida have a very aggressive burn program. So we manage our forests here. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t have a tragedy and have a large fire get out of hand, but we do manage our forests here in the state of Florida.”
In the panhandle, since Hurricane Michael there is almost 50 percent of decaying forest from fuel on the ground.
Simpson said, “It’s something all of us has been very aggressively trying to clean up and getting additional resources, not only from the state, but from the federal government. It’s ongoing. When a forest fire gets out of control, generally it’s because you were not managing your forest properly in the in the beginning. When you don’t allow for forestry departments to do control burns, you clearly are going to have a problem. It actually makes your forest more healthy and better for the environment when you do control berms. So it’s something in Florida, we’re going to continue to do very aggressively. Because once these very large, massive wildfires get out of control, they generally substantially burn out. We continuously train throughout the year, but we are continuously putting out fires and making sure that we have the proper equipment.”
The cleanup from Hurricane Ian will probably be a multi-year process.
Simpson said, “The state this year spent nearly $60 million for our citrus industry to try to recover from Hurricane Ian. That’s going to be a two or three or four year process as we continue to plant crops. We lost a bunch of hay last year from all the flooding. We are recovering. It’s a very slow process. There’s a lot of resources that our farmers don’t have today because the federal program has not really kicked in yet. We’re trying to get it to where we have block grants, to where your Department of Agriculture in the state can give out these resources rather than trying to go through a federal program. Under a federal program, it seems to take many years to get these programs in place. Here in Tallahassee, we could get these in place in just a few weeks. So they’re trying in the farm bill this year to get a block grant to where it would come through your Department of Agriculture, and then we can get the farmers relief. You know how long ago Ian was. We still have a lot of farmers that are not recovering, because they don’t have the resources and the general resources that they would be entitled to under a natural disaster like this. I’ve worked with several of our members of Congress, and obviously our two US Senators, to try to speed this process up. We are hopeful that before the end of this year, they will pass a farm bill which will include relief for Florida farmers.”