Florida Ag Commissioner Cites Water, Labor and Pests as Key Issues
Tuesday, March 6th, 2012
Agriculture is a $100 billion industry in Florida providing nearly one million jobs and serving as the strongest pillar of Florida’s economy. Despite this difficult economic environment, agriculture grew by $150 million in cash receipts last year. As Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner, Adam H. Putnam oversees efforts to promote Florida-grown commodities, protect the industry’s long-term sustainability and support businesses in meeting federal and state requirements. In an emailed response, Commissioner Putnam provided these responses to questions posed by GrowingFlorida.com:
What are the biggest issues that Florida growers face in 2012?
I believe there are three major issues that could threaten the long-term sustainability of Florida agriculture – water, labor and threats from pests and diseases. Florida does not have the supply to source our growing demand for water. Alternative water supplies can help us grow the quantity of water we have available for use in Florida and agriculture plays an important role in conserving water use and growing our state’s water supply.
Florida also has gaps in the labor workforce available for agriculture, hospitality and other key industries. These gaps existed in the workforce when unemployment was at 3.5 percent and remain today. Without immigrant workers to help businesses fill these gaps, Florida’s key industries will not be able to grow and thrive. But Florida, alone, cannot solve this problem. We must work with the Federal Government to develop a comprehensive solution to our nation’s immigration problems.
Finally, most of the new pests and diseases introduced to the U.S. come through Florida. On average, we detect 12 new pests or disease every year. The most recent pest we’ve been dealing with is the Giant African Land Snail. It was detected in Miami and poses a triple threat: 1) it consumes stucco on homes, 2) it has been known to carry meningitis and 3) it consumes more than 500 varieties of plants. This pest multiplies exponentially. Each snail can reproduce 1,200 more snails in one year.
What initiatives do you have under way to address these issues?
Florida agriculture is using less water and fertilizer and reducing farm runoff into our water resources, thanks to efforts by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to help producers implement best practices and utilize new technologies. The industry is using the latest technologies, which result in more efficient, low-volume irrigation; more precise application of fertilizer so less is needed; integrated pest management to reduce the use of chemicals; and erosion control measures. In some parts of the state, the department is helping ranchers take conservation and environmental protection efforts even further by supporting programs where growers and ranchers store water on their land and/or actively remove pollutants from water that flows across their land through a natural filtering process. Across the state, more than three million acres of farm, ranch and nursery lands are taking advantage of the programs the department offers to protect and conserve water resources, and the number continues to grow. The department has also deployed mobile laboratories to travel the state to advise growers on how to improve their irrigation system efficiency and irrigation scheduling by applying new technologies.
The federal government must act as quickly – and thoughtfully – as possible to develop a comprehensive solution to immigration reform. One possible national solution is a temporary worker program that would permit U.S. businesses to hire immigrant workers while also providing protections for the workers. A temporary worker program would allow immigrant workers to pay taxes and ensure their employers are paying the social costs. A temporary worker program would also enable the U.S. to track immigrant workers and ensure that they are only here for a defined amount of time.
Research is our best weapon against threats to the industry from pests and diseases. With research, we are able to protect the industry from most hazards, mitigate the negative impact of threats to the industry and enable the industry to grow and thrive. The research we apply and the methods that we practice in Florida are used throughout the world to combat the same or similar issues and we will continue to support on-going research activities through our state university system and state or federal partners.
What can federal and state leaders do to enhance growth in the ag industry?
The most pressing issue that may discourage growth in the ag industry is the inability of the federal government to pass the U.S. Farm Bill. The comprehensive bill is the primary agricultural and food policy tool for the USDA and its passage is critical for commodity incentives, rural development, research and funding for food and nutrition programs.
Thanks to Congress’s recent action in passing three free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, new market access will soon be available for American producers. The new trade agreements present a great opportunity for Florida growers to expand sales to the international market. By opening these new markets of trade, growers will be able to increase crops and sell the Florida brand across three new geographic regions. The strength of Florida agriculture is due in part to the promotion of Florida-grown products through the Fresh From Florida campaign and efforts to grow the market for our products overseas. With the addition of new markets this year, including India and Singapore, 120 countries now serve Florida products in their restaurants and on their dining tables.
More information on the efforts under way at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is available at www.freshfromflorida.com.