View of the Sanibel Island Farmers Market, a weekly market held on Sundays located in the Sanibel city hall in Lee County, Florida, USA on January 26, 2020. Photo and Caption: EQRoy/Shutterstock.com
Politics is a messy business. Many would prefer to stay out of it, but unfortunately, that’s not always possible. As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis knows all too well, you’re only as good as your Cabinet members. Currently, the governor is butting heads with Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. DeSantis has kept Fried in the dark about his decision to approve a $380.7 million grant to help forest landowners hit by Hurricane Michael, a move that Fried later praised.
“Governor DeSantis remains committed to helping all Florida residents, especially those who were deeply affected by Hurricane Michael such as farmers in the timber industry,” DeSantis spokesperson Helen Aguirre Ferré said.
Since taking office in 2019, Commissioner Fried has been a consistent voice for Florida’s timber industry. Fried has made several trips to affected Panhandle timber communities, including leading tours of lawmakers through the devastated areas.
Timber is the leading industry in the Florida Panhandle, and suffered a $1.3 billion economic blow from Hurricane Michael. An estimated 550 million trees, weighing 72 million tons, were damaged or destroyed by the massive Category 5 hurricane in October 2018. As of 2014, Florida timberland ownership, which supports the forest products industry, was 71 percent private, 1 percent state and local, and 11 percent federal.
Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, had been complaining that not enough briefings about coronavirus were being held. This forced the governor to cancel a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday (June 9).
“It’s unfortunate we are where we are,” said one agriculture group lobbyist. “It doesn’t help the agriculture industry when the commissioner and the governor just can’t be on the same page.”
Agriculture lobbyists and executives are worried the agriculture industry will suffer if Republicans and Democrats keep being at odds with each other. The situation is made worse by DeSantis’ and Fried’s lack of farming expertise. Agriculture groups fear that the feud between DeSantis and Fried will hurt farmers in the long run.
In such a divided political scene and with the world coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worrisome to many people about how this will affect our state leader’s decisions on things that will impact us Florida residents and tourists alike.
Aides for DeSantis and Fried downplayed the feud, saying they’re working on behalf of agriculture. Fried spokesperson Franco Ripple said the USDA block grant was delayed because of a dispute with the federal agency over a funding formula. The final award announced on May 28 was a joint effort between the agriculture commissioner and the governor’s office.
Florida agriculture is a $160 billion-a-year industry and the second leading economic sector in the state behind tourism. Agriculture, natural resources, and food industries are significant contributors to the economy of the state of Florida. The crops go beyond citrus to include turfgrass, cattle, timber, vegetables and seafood.
Florida agricultural exports rose 4.4% in 2017, totaling $4.04 billion. A positive sign after seeing declines in 2015 and 2016. Since 2008, exports have increased by 31.4% and over the past decade have grown at an average annual rate of 2.8%. Growth has remained relatively flat since 2011, growing at an average annual rate of .27%.
Florida annually exports 24 different agricultural export commodities in significant amounts. Of those major commodities, 14 showed increases and 10 recorded decreases in 2017. Tobacco and beverages decreased by 18% and 9%, respectively. Meats, prepared fruits and vegetables, beverages and fish top the list of Florida’s leading export commodities. Exports of dairy products and sugars each rose 56% in 2017.
In 2017, Florida had 47,000 commercial farms and ranches, using a total of 9.45 million acres. Florida ranked first in the U.S. in value of production of cucumbers, grapefruit, oranges, squash, sugarcane, fresh market snap beans, and fresh market tomatoes. The state ranked second in value of production of bell peppers, strawberries, watermelons, fresh market cabbage and fresh market sweet corn. Florida also ranked fourth nationally in the value of the production of peanuts.
*As of 2018, no standard methodology exists for producing economic impact or economic contribution reports.