BRADENTON -- The future of Florida's $100 billion agricultural industry is that of a global leader.
It's just a matter of committing to a plan.
That's the message Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam sent to members of the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton during a luncheon Tuesday at Kiwanis Hall.
The former congressman and Florida native took questions from the audience, which include Manatee elected officials, business owners and community leaders, and advocated a need for improved water supply, nutrition, international trade and research and innovation as ways elevate Florida's agricultural value.
Florida exports its goods to 120 countries, including, most recently, India and Singapore, Putnam said. Shipping agricultural goods around the world benefits the ports in Florida, which in turn helps the job market.
"The notion that agriculture is always low-tech, Old McDonald's Farm, is just flat wrong," he said.
Florida must first protect its water supply. A national drought put a financial squeeze on Florida farmers and ranchers this year, Putnam. Water supply is a major concern moving forward in Florida.
"Water, in my opinion, is the biggest long-term issue facing Florida," he said. "Whether your objective in life is to build a subdivision, or plant an orange grove, or to save the Everglades, its future will be determined by water quantity and water quality in our state. Everywhere, Florida is now facing degrees of scarcity."
To sustain and increase Florida's water supply, Putnam said the Florida Department of Agriculture is looking into investing in alternative water supplies and experimentation
with water farming. Rather than create ditches and canals to get water off the property, Putnam said it is more cost-effective to leave water on the property to redistribute during the dry season.
"As Floridians, this is something to really pay attention to because you can't afford to wait until it's a crisis to begin fashioning legislative solutions to it," he said.
Providing healthier foods used in the state-funded school lunch program was also a top issue for Putnam. With roughly 3 million students in Florida using the program each day for the majority of the school year, Putnam said its vital to implement nutritious options while simultaneously buying from and supporting Florida growers.
Simply put, Putnam said the program can do better than Tater Tots and ketchup, and failure to alter eating habits could have tax implications.
"You're developing habits that 40, 50, 60 years later you will again support through Medicaid and Medicare where 60 percent of our health care costs are managing diet related illnesses," he said.
In closing, Putnam said Florida must continue to push the envelope in land-use research. As an example, Florida's $60 million blueberry industry was nonexistent 20 years ago, but through research, was introduced and treated properly.
"If you want to continue to support a local, $100 billion industry, we have to continue to support higher educational research and development," he said.
Attendees at the luncheon praised Putnam's strategy.
"We trust him," said Jim Strickland, Manatee's agricultural appraiser. We're in good hands. I can't imagine anyone better suited than Adam Putnam."
Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams