At the 2023 Lay of the Land Conference, Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson, discussed the significance of safeguarding Florida's farming industry, the balance between state and federal government, and the introduction of the solar industry into the Sunshine State.
Below is an excerpt from the interview. Listen above for the full podcast.
What is the balance between the federal government and Florida legislature? What I will tell you as a legislator about six months ago, is that I do think that the federal government should do what we're doing.
In your state of Florida, we have a AAA bond rating by all three agencies. The federal government is not even AAA-rated any longer because of the amount of debt that they're piling up. When the state of Florida is paying off debt and lowering taxes, the federal government is doing the exact opposite. Would I prefer that the federal government have common sense and work at any type of speed? Yes, but the reality is we're having to nearly run Florida as a country unto itself. If Florida was a country unto itself, we would be the 15th largest economy in the world. We'd be a very powerful country, but I don't agree with that. We're part of the United States and we love being part of the United States.
How does the legislature plan to address crop diseases? When you're thinking about various crops, our university system, mostly UF [University of Florida], our researchers are coming up with different crops every year. We're clearly dealing with greening and citrus. We're spending tens of millions of dollars, as a state, trying to come up with a solution to citrus greening and canker. In my own opinion, we're probably still a few years away. Then we're probably a few more years away from being able to prove it because you got to put these things in the ground, grow them, and make sure that we're doing that right.
Citrus is an iconic fruit here in Florida and we'd love to keep doing that. With peaches and all the other things that've been introduced in the last couple of decades, we're getting better and better. I know there's all different types of crops that we're researching. Your state is spending tens of millions of dollars on that type of research through university systems to make our crops better. You’ve seen the white strawberry now, it's happening in many industries and we are researching that.
How does technology affect agriculture? With the water issue, we're very proud of the gains that we've made using best management practices and technology to lower water demand. Think about AI, the computer systems, and being able to scan fields and say, “oh, this area is moist and it needs no water” and “this area does need water”. We're at the inflection point of almost everything we do on this planet is through artificial intelligence.
You're gonna see that over the next five years come into agriculture in a big way. It is going to make us more efficient with less nutrient loads, less fertilizer, less water. It’ll make us more competitive on the world stage. Remember, we're not just competing with Georgia and other states, but we are competing with the world on these commodities. We have to be able to do a better job at that. So, we're spending a disproportionate amount of time trying to have better varieties and making sure that in the state of Florida, we want people to have “Fresh From Florida” fruits and vegetables. That's what we're looking for.
Where is the sewage spill issue going? The reality is, you have a lot of nutrient load coming down the Mississippi and into the Gulf. You've got a lot of nutrient load coming from those systems in and around our coastline, mostly wastewater treatment facilities that are not advanced. Today, we're putting 100 million gallons of reclaimed water out into the Gulf or the Atlantic.
In the newspaper, people will see oil spills, raw sewage spills, and then a red tide will break out. They’ll say “what are these farmers doing?” Well, I guess we're not paying enough in taxes to fix the problem at the wastewater treatment facilities so they’re putting raw sewage in your water. But when you have a major hurricane, like we did last year with Ian, that comes up through the heartland and you see historic flooding, all of those septic systems, all that nutrient load, and all that system is now outside the Caloosahatchee in the St. Lucie. That's where they drain to.
You have all of these resources, septic systems in and around your state that’s going into those systems and then you have a natural disaster like [Hurricane] Ian come through to wash and flush it out. It's very common after one of those major storms to have more red tides the following year because you got more of a nutrient load in that system. Next year, with hopefully no hurricanes this year, it will get better, but we have to reduce that nutrient load and we have to be honest about where that nutrient load is coming from. Today, farmers have a very small megaphone and everybody else has got a very large one. Because there's only 1 or 2% of us doing what we do, it's easier to pick on us, but the reality is we have to get rid of these septic systems.
Are solar farms taking over Florida agriculture? In full disclosure, I actually sold a piece of farmland to a solar farm two to four years ago. At the time, it wasn't even part of that consideration. In my mind, it was like, “okay, we're going to have solar fields around the state of Florida and that's probably what we need to have a more sustainable long term grid”.
Solar is finally getting cheap enough to where it makes economic sense in some places to do those things. The technology is getting better and better and over time, that's probably part of the solution. Right now, it’s going to take tens of thousands of acres of farmland out of production. I think we need to look at better ways to be able to deliver that. There's a lot of solutions. Right over parking lots and over the tops of buildings. Publix’s, Walmart's, and all these giant commercial buildings could put them on there and you don't lose anything when you do that. If you put them down the major highway structure systems on both sides, you don't lose a lot, but they'll chase natural corridors and things like that. It is something that the legislature is looking at.
I don't think there's an immediate solution, but I'm thinking that we're more aware of our farmland going away. We're clearly pushing that in the Department of Agriculture now. I'm hopeful that we will come up with better solutions than just taking down thousands of acres of farmland. That'll be one of those other competing interests that we can't afford to have.
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