Three meetings this week in three different areas of the state brought more discussion that should wake up producers and others in agriculture who have remained mostly silent for decades. As the state’s population continues to swell by a 1,000 new residents each day, Florida’s population will likely exceed 22-million next year. As the nation’s third most populous state, there’s no end in sight to Florida’s growth.
The first meeting of the newly appointed Blue-Green Algae Task Force (BGATF) met at Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) headquarters in Tallahassee all day on Wednesday.
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) governing board gathered for its monthly meeting in West Palm Beach on Thursday, after changing earlier plans to hold its June meeting in Okeechobee.
Florida Citrus Mutual members, families and guests also gathered for their annual membership soiree at a Bonita Springs resort mid-week. They heard from Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and others, including Florida Senator Ben Albritton, himself a citrus grower. Albritton’s comments hit home on the topic of a need for more effective communication for agriculture’s facts, and the situation Florida farmers find themselves in. Albritton told the citrus leaders that “whether we want to ignore it or not, agriculture is under attack in the state of Florida,” adding that “Agriculture is not a menace in the state of Florida.”
BLUE-GREEN ALGAE IN FOCUS: With Florida’s blue-green algae issue at center stage, members of the new BGATF heard public comments and discussed and explored many options as to how the state’s algae and water-quality issues can be dealt with most effectively. State political leaders and appointed officials want them to move as quickly as possible under the circumstances to find answers to algae blooms with most of the focus in South Florida while recognizing that algae occurs all over the state. The five-member scientific task force is searching for facts on which to base good decisions, a view reiterated in these brief comments to Southeast AgNet from Florida’s Chief Science Officer Tom Frazer shortly after the meeting:
A couple agriculture industry representatives attending the BGATF meeting were encouraged that the task force seems to focus on facts versus the misinformation and misreporting that many in agriculture feel taint farmers unfairly in the public debate.
Florida Farm Bureau Federation’s Charles Shinn offers insights in these comments that every Florida farmer and rancher should hear. While he’s encouraged about the direction the task force is taking, he also knows agriculture can’t expect a great outcome if it doesn’t show up to get involved in the discussion:
Also attending the BGATF was Florida Cattlemen’s Association Executive Director Jim Handley, who made the trek to Tallahassee just days before his members gather in Marco Island for their annual convention this week. Handley says there are many positive facts about the cattle industry that the public doesn’t know. Cattle ranching plays an important role in improving water quality and preventing algal growth. Handley sums up several key points in this brief AgNet interview following the meeting.
The SFWMD governing board seat to represent the region north of Lake Okeechobee continues to remain empty, and there remains no agricultural representation on the board to participate in its official discussions. At this time, it is unclear as to when the last appointment might be made, and it’s unknown whether it will be someone with first-hand knowledge of agriculture or not.
Even so, the other eight all-new board members are wasting no time to discuss their ideas about what to do about agriculture north of the lake in terms of added regulation aimed at improving water quality entering Lake Okeechobee. For years, agriculture south of the lake has been blamed for many things that turned out to be not so accurate. Farmers in the Everglades Ag Area (EAA) are nonetheless saddled with an extra “privilege tax” of $25 per acre, a total of around $11 million a year to help pay for the operation and maintenance of the regional water-treatment system. The tax was codified in the 1994 state legislation known as the Everglades Forever Act and remains in place well into the future. Some regulators want that increased, too.
Now, the board has turned its attention to farmers and ranchers north of the lake. The region is in the crosshairs for similar regulations and possibly more “historic” action as discussions continue. In that region, cattle ranching is prevalent, and cows have far less margin of profit than vegetables and sugarcane. It’s an ongoing discussion about the very future of Florida agriculture that many fear farmers and ranchers are unaware that’s even occurring.
In the final moments of the SFWMD governing board meeting late Thursday, the board discussion circled back to what to do to improve water quality, and how to deal with hundreds of thousands of acres of farms and ranches located north of Lake Okeechobee.
Mention about a decades-old constitutional amendment to “make the polluters pay” and the special “ag privilege tax,” led to more questions as to why farmers north of the lake aren’t regulated the same way. Some governing board members noted that SFWMD is not alone in the regulatory decision-making process.
FDEP will play a key role working with both the SFWMD and the BGATF in the development of programs, rules and other projects to deal with water-quality issues facing the region. Things like special taxes or other so-called “historic” changes will also likely require legislative debate and action. Meanwhile, with pressures of algae blooms on the minds of the public, time is of the essence to get involved. SFWMD governing board discussions yielded some comments worth noting for ag interests throughout the state and region. We share some choice cuts below, with a reminder that the SFWMD workshops and meetings are all recorded and archived at the SFWMD website for review.
Early in Thursday’s SFWMD meeting, governing board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch shared her concerns about time being of the essence to make decisions as a board. She offered comments targeting the limited time frame available for this SFWMD board to make a difference:
Board member Ron Bergeron then briefly reviewed the history of what brought SFWMD into existence and how today’s situation developed from there. He provided a brief but easy to understand big-picture look at the complex decisions and flood control system changes that allowed people to safely live in South Florida in the first place. Referring to today’s situation, he added, “If you don’t lower the nutrients, don’t expect to lower the algae blooms.”
Bergeron continued, “It’s not like we’re going after any particular industry … it doesn’t matter. You can’t poison all the water of Florida, and we’ve got to have a plan.”
Board member Cheryl Meads raised questions about a Florida constitutional amendment that makes polluters pay, the unique taxes that EAA farmers pay to farm their land in that area, and what it all may mean for farmers elsewhere in the district, including those north of Lake Okeechobee, who don’t pay anything in comparison:
Board member Charlette Roman points out that it will take a “partnership” of different agencies to do what is necessary to solve the algae problems, adding that “it doesn’t make sense unless you stop the pollution in the first place…”
In response to Meads’ comments above, board member Carlos “Charlie” Martinez asked the question outright: “Why is the EAA the only one that pays a ‘privilege tax?’”
The agriculture “privilege tax” discussion continued with Thurlow-Lippisch mentioning the increasing costs of building and operating a growing water-management system, adding “it just seems like somehow over time we’ve gotten out of balance here…”
Nearing the very end of the meeting, Bergeron, in this final audio clip, responded to concerns being raised by some about “this board going after agriculture.” He also closes his comments below by saying, “We’ve got to come to a resolution and a plan … because if we poison all the water for 8.7 million people, that’s a pretty big expense.”
Gary Cooper is the founder and president of AgNet Media, Inc., based in Gainesville, Florida.
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