By REID TUCKER
Visitors to the Red Bay Grocery usually come for the restaurant’s famous lunch specials, but Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam was the big draw on Tuesday, March 27, when he talked about the future of farming in the state.
The commissioner, who took office in January of last year, visited Walton County on the second day of a three-day-long Panhandle tour in which he touted the resiliency of agriculture in the face of the economic downturn and spoke of the potential for growth in the industry. In attendance at the question-and-answer lunch meeting was a who’s-who among county elected officials, including Circuit Judge Kelvin Wells, Tax Collector Rhonda Skipper, Sheriff Mike Adkinson, County Administrator Greg Kisela, and several members of the County Commission, among others. Residents and representatives of businesses from around Walton County rounded out the guests to the event, which was organized by state Rep. Brad Drake.
Putnam told the lunch crowd that, with construction and tourism still struggling, agriculture, a $100 billion business nationwide, remains “the anchor industry for the Florida economy.” “It’s not the most glamorous, it’s not the sexiest, but it is the most stable provider of jobs and ad valorem base and everything else that communities need,” he said. “I view the future of agriculture as being very bright, and the future of agriculture in Florida really is the future of Florida. What happens to these lands, whether there are new opportunities, new commodities, and new crops or whether it continues to contract will shape the future of our state.”
Putnam has been making his rounds at town hall-style meetings throughout Florida since the start of 2012, and at each stop he fields questions on several topics. During his visit to Red Bay, those questions revolved around raising awareness about the economic impact of agribusiness, promotion of Florida seafood industry, getting more locally grown produce in public schools, and promotion of state’s rights in regard to numeric water quality standards.
In the area of expanding agribusiness, Putnam said Florida is ideally positioned to take advantage of a potentially lucrative “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that encompasses the extensive use of bio-fuels, or as he called them, “agriculture-based fuels.” Rural economic development in other parts of the country often involves bringing in an automobile plant or heavy industry manufacturing, but not so in Florida. Putnam said the state’s rural areas have more options than their counterparts elsewhere when it comes to increasing salaries and creating new jobs in agriculture while enabling farmers to continue to do what they’ve been doing for centuries.
“Energy opportunities are going to benefit rural communities the most,” Putnam said. “If you look at where these renewable energy opportunities are, they’re not in the cities. They’re in rural communities. It gives rural communities the opportunity to create jobs, keep their young people from moving away, while not having to fundamentally change the character of that community to the point that you don’t recognize it anymore.”
The Department of Agriculture has also made strides in renewing consumer confidence in the safety and quality of seafood in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, with Putnam saying that there have been no cases of contaminated food products from the Gulf since he came into office.
Putnam’s department was also the first in the nation to be put in charge of a state public school lunch program. Florida has seen an expansion to the amount of more nutritious local produce on school lunch menus to the benefit of the state’s farmers and students alike, Putnam said.
Finally, Putnam talked about the federally mandated numeric water quality standards imposed on Florida by the Environmental Protection Agency, which he said forcibly superseded the authority of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to regulate and monitor nutrient over-enrichment in the state’s inland waterways. Putnam said the EPA regulations were applied to Florida alone and that the state was now held responsible for the nutrient content of rivers, lakes and other bodies of water despite many of the problems originating at the source of these waterways in Georgia and Alabama. He said care must be taken to avoid a so-called “water war” between the states and the federal government, as the agriculture industry will take the biggest hit.
To conclude the Q-and-A session, Putnam reiterated the importance of agriculture in furthering America’s aims at energy independence and maintaining independence in food production, all while increasing export opportunities. With some combination of Florida’s 300 locally grown agricultural commodities currently being sold in 120 countries, Putnam said local farmers are poised to take advantage of new technologies and techniques that can only strengthen the role they will continue to play in the worldwide economy. He said this role is something of which Florida’s farmers can be proud.
“Resource-based jobs and resource-based economics are a critical part of America’s future,” Putnam said. “You can’t support an economy just by trading paper on Wall Street. You have to be a nation that builds things and creates things and innovates when dealing with tangible objects that have some intrinsic value, not some made-up value that’s set by a bond trader sitting in front of computer screen.
“People are always going to have to eat, and in the United States only 1 ½ percent of the population is feeding this planet. That’s an efficiency that no other industry can claim.”