‘I think there’s still hope’: Florida Farm Bureau President talks citrus production woes, 2022 Session

jeb smith ART
'That’s the behemoth. That is the backbone of our agricultural industry, and has been for decades.'

Jeb Smith, the new President of the Florida Farm Bureau, remains hopeful Florida’s citrus industry can rebound after disappointing projections to start the 2021-22 season.

Smith spoke to Florida Politics about the citrus industry’s struggles and several other topics ahead of the 2022 Legislative Session. Smith, whose family has decades of experience in farming, resigned from the St. Johns County Commission in early November after he was elected by delegates to lead the Florida Farm Bureau. Smith had served as a St. Johns County Commissioner for seven years.

On why he pursued the gig

“I ran for it because I was asked to run. I was asked by some of our state directors to do so. If not, I don’t know if I would have considered it,” Smith said.

“Being involved in production agriculture in the state, the County Commission and other things that I’ve been involved with have prepared me for the job.”

Smith’s ties to the Florida Farm Bureau run deep as well. He has served on the St. Johns County farm bureau board since 1997, served as county board president for nine years and was a state director for nine years. Smith also spent time on advisory committees with the American Farm Bureau and at the state level.

“I’ve been very, very involved in the organization and its policy development, which gave me familiarity with a lot of its members statewide.”

The backbone of Florida agriculture 

This year’s starting citrus forecast was the lowest in decades and continued a downward trend for expected production of oranges, grapefruit, tangerines and tangelos. But Smith says he’s not resigned to a continued decline in Florida’s citrus production.

“I think there’s still hope. And I think all of us hope that the citrus industry can be salvaged and turned around,” he said. “That’s the behemoth. That is the backbone of our agricultural industry, and has been for decades.”

Smith pointed to possible advances in citrus stock, arguing that more disease-resistant or cold-resistant stock could help get the industry back on its feet. He mentioned past hurdles producers have faced, such as freezes, canker spread and the shifting of the crop farther south, and argued farmers would overcome this recent downslide just the same.

“The volume might be down in regard to acreage. But I think some opportunity may come forth to where we can make it more efficient, make production more efficient, and have higher yields on less property.”

2022 Legislative Session

Smith spotlighted Senate Bill 1000 from Sen. Ben Albritton as a high-priority bill for the Farm Bureau when the Legislature convenes in January.

“It’s called rate tailoring for fertilizer application for producers,” Smith explained. The legislation “would allow a certified crop consultant to be able to provide recommended rates.”

That could allow farmers — in the citrus industry and elsewhere — to ensure nutrients are being put into the ground using the best methods available.

“Some of the (recommendations) that we have are over two decades old and are not necessarily applicable to some of our newer (crop) varieties,” Smith said.

“That is a very, very important piece of legislation that would allow for the scientifically backed, expert-driven, professionally driven recommendation to allow our producers to be able to be competitive with quality and quantity in a crop, as well as be sensitive to the environment and natural resources in their protection.”

As of this posting, there is no House sponsor for the legislation.

Agritourism

Albritton and Rep. Josie Tomkow are working on separate legislation to further promote agritourism in Florida. While Smith said he hadn’t looked over that particular piece of legislation, he supported agritourism generally as a potential profit generator for farmers.

“There’s an opportunity for producers to expand their business model to be able to provide entertainment and exposure of the public to agriculture, to its benefits, and to something that a lot of them are completely separated from,” Smith said.

“I know folks that really, really enjoy getting out in the countryside and walking through a corn patch or a hay ride. So if a farmer has that opportunity, that equates to him having more opportunity to expand his business model and to thrive or survive.”

He did, however, point to the difficulty in examining those operations and whether they constitute “bona fide agricultural purposes” or are just a money-making venture. That distinction matters when it comes to property assessments, as farmers are offered preferential tax rates to encourage them to hold onto their farms.

“I know a lot of our property appraisers and others have had some questions. There have been some gray areas,” Smith said.

“One of the things that happens though is the entrepreneurial spirit provokes others to want to engage too. And they’re not bona fide agriculture, but they see the opportunity. So they see a barn and a pasture and think, ‘Oh I can start an agritourism business.’ And that’s a totally different intent.”

Profit problems

“If farmers are going to stay in farming, they have to be profitable,” Smith said. “If you peel everything back — every piece of legislation or every additional regulation — it doesn’t matter. We can continue to farm as long as we’re profitable. And if not, here in Florida, the option is to sell it to a developer.”

Smith pointed to overregulation as a potential profit killer and argued lawmakers should keep that primary goal in mind when drafting legislation relating to agriculture.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s at the local, the state, or even a federal level. If there’s something that begins to erode the ability to make a profit on what we’re growing and producing, that begins to jeopardize or compromise the ability to remain viable.”

Science and policy

Smith closed the discussion talking about the importance of science and research in the agriculture industry going forward.

“We have some wonderful new technology in regard to water irrigation. Irrigation is necessary for growing crops and livestock and we’ve gotten more efficient,” Smith explained.

“With plant stocks, there are tremendous benefits that are coming from some of the science that’s been worked on in our land-grant universities — not just here in Florida, but nationwide. We’re the beneficiaries. As a society, we’re the beneficiaries of some of those investors by the taxpayers, our state Legislature and our local governments.”

Smith said it’s the government’s job to support land-grant universities and other entities looking to move the industry forward and help with efficiency and environmental concerns.

“Policy has to back and has to support the research side of the industry in order to promote, provoke and enjoy the benefits of better technologies,” Smith said, arguing research institutions are particularly important.

“I’m excited about it because they’ve been on the forefront of identifying and addressing some of these issues, and they’re doing a good job. And we’ll support them 100%.”

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected]


One comment

  • Harold Finch

    December 28, 2021 at 10:53 am

    Jeb Smith is a true laeder mwho understands the Florida Ag industry, and will be “a breath of fresh air” following his predecessor Jon Holick, who was an arrogant, egotistiacl, know-it-all!! So glad he is out!!

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