Singling out farmers south of Lake Okeechobee during a speech to area residents in Cape Coral, Florida, in late February, Rep. Francis Rooney (R – SW FL District 19) stated he wants to “try to deal with the continuing menace of agriculture in the EAA (Everglades Agriculture Area).”
This video excerpt of the congressman’s comments, transcribed below, is now being widely shared among farmers and others in South Florida via social media.
Rooney says, “…The other two things I’m working on is to try to deal with the continuing menace of agriculture in the EAA. One is to remove agriculture from the mission of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. If we could do that, then there would be no reason for them to deny us the water we need in the winter, and to keep from giving us the water we don’t need in the summer.”
AgNet Media reached out to Congressman Rooney’s office with a couple questions late last week, to which a staff spokesman replied by email as follows:
Q: What would Congressman Rooney propose take the place of the domestically produced food the farmers of this region provide Floridians and millions of others around the nation and world, and what would replace the economic impact and the thousands of jobs such a decision would displace?
A: Congressman Rooney was talking about the sugar production south of the lake, in the EAA Reservoir. The sugar industry pushes the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to keep more water in the lake in the winter than would best meet the needs of the coastal urban areas and which leave a pre-rainy season lake level higher than the minimum possible. If the lake is at a minimum at the beginning of the rainy season, there is more flexibility to store water in the lake after the rains come and thus reduce harmful discharges into the Caloosahatchee River. The coastal cities and the residents along the river want more water in the dry season and less in the rainy season. Eliminating “serving agriculture” from the USACE mission in so far as it pertains to what happens in the EAA would free the USACE to focus on discharges from Lake Okeechobee that cause minimum harm and maximum help to the river and the residents along it and those downstream along the coast.
Q: Is it the congressman’s ultimate wish to see a Florida without agriculture in the future? What would he say to the farmers in his own district that this decision might also impact?
A: Of course not. The congressman’s comments were specifically related to the EAA Reservoir area immediately to the south of Lake Okeechobee. The agriculture here is the sugar industry. It has nothing to do with the cattle, vegetable, citrus and other fruit industries across Florida. Unfortunately, the sugar industry and the coastal cities and residents along the Caloosahatchee River have different needs as far as discharges are concerned.
With so much inaccurate news about agriculture circulating in South Florida these days, as an exploding urban population looks to place blame for many negative environmental impacts largely of its own making, area farmers are feeling like the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.”
The EAA is the nation’s winter vegetable capital and salad bowl providing millions of Americans east of the Mississippi River with a variety of domestically-produced fresh produce during the coldest months of winter each year. It truly is much more than just a place where sugarcane is produced and many of the land owners also grow citrus and graze cattle within Congressman Rooney’s own southwest Florida district.
EAA farmers and area residents are increasingly concerned their industry may be sacrificed on the emotions of an uninformed public being encouraged by politicians and others using inaccurate and emotional rhetoric, instead of sharing good science and focusing on facts.
Emotions continue to escalate on both sides of this debate, as farmers, ranchers and those who represent the industry keep trying to deal with a rapidly changing and somewhat confusing political environment.
For many years farmers in this region have been under a public microscope, giving up vast acreages they formerly farmed and implementing good science that has greatly improved their operations environmentally. Meanwhile some of the world’s most productive and valuable remaining farm lands hang in the balance as hordes of new residents keep moving to South Florida faster than ever before.
In the present political environment, it is unclear how all this may play out. But among farmers who know the importance of following good science to find the best answers, few, if any, believe getting rid of farms will do anything at all to improve the water-quality woes of South Florida.
Farmers know the facts, whether others want to believe them or not. They know they are doing more to solve the problem than many of those on the urban side of the fence who are making the most noise.
Many decades ago, South Florida’s farmers were originally credited with making the region inhabitable by masses of people to begin with. Before the farmers, most urbanized areas of both South Florida coastlines consisted of swamplands. Yet, nowadays, it’s not uncommon to hear people show up to public hearings and call for the elimination of agriculture, out of the ignorance many of them share as new residents to the state. Regardless of facts versus fiction, these masses vote, and politicians seem to play the emotions to their favor instead of sharing good science and facts with their constituents — too often at the expense of agriculture’s image.
Farmers were working to make South Florida inhabitable many decades before air-conditioning and mosquito repellent came along to encourage so many others to move in and become full-time residents. For decades from the early 1900’s up until the late 1960’s, politicians encouraged the dredging and draining of South Florida so places like Miami Beach and many other heavily urbanized areas could exist. Many of today’s political leaders in Florida continue to prove they don’t know this history, and some apparently have no interest in learning or understanding its significance to this debate.
For the sake of Florida’s future, those who really care must hope the madness of this growing “us versus them” chorus ends, and that somehow all sectors of our state’s population can get on the same page of good and fair science. If not, what’s left of the state could soon become trashed and covered in cement as hundreds of thousands of new residents annually continue moving in to call Florida their new home.
Gary Cooper is the founder and president of AgNet Media, Inc., based in Gainesville, Florida.