FL Gov Race: Dem Choice for Lt Gov Makes Strong Ag Statement

Gary Cooper Cattle, Citrus, Florida, General, Sugar

Feature Commentary
Alex SinkTapping Rod Smith as her Lieutenant Governor running-mate, Alex Sink makes a strong agriculture statement about Rod Smithher candidacy for Florida’s top job. Sink herself is said to have grown up in an agricultural family, but Smith’s roots in Florida agriculture run deep, as do his roots in public service. Rod Smith is no newcomer to agriculture, or Florida politics. Some may recall that Smith ran for Governor himself four years ago after a few years in the Florida Senate, but got bumped in a very close primary race by a more liberal Democrat.
From an exclusive interview done via cell phone hookup with him this weekend, listen to Rod’s comments about his agriculture roots in Florida and what he feels he brings, agriculturally, to the Democratic ticket as Alex Sink’s pick for Lieutenant Governor. And if you want to know more about this guy who I have known for a lifetime, read on after you listen to these interview cuts. Some parts of the story may surprise you.

Smith has real hands-on agriculture experience, in south Florida winter vegetables and then in cattle ranching in north-central Florida. After earning his law degree he also spent nearly 20 years in private law practice representing working folks before being elected State’s Attorney in north-central Florida. In that job, Rod gained national notoriety by prosecuting the killer of five college students in a high profile case in Gainesville. Then, elected to the state Senate in 2000, Smith became an effective voice for agriculture, known as someone who could work with all angles to tackle complex issues successfully. Smith became known for his effective leadership and chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee in the Florida Senate.

Rod Smith & Gary Cooper, Founder & President of Southeast AgNet, at a Florida Farm Bureau reception in 2006If it sounds like I know this guy, I do. Rod Smith was raised in a winter vegetable farming family in Boynton Beach, in southeast Palm Beach County. As his cousin, I can vouch first hand for his young years spent on the same kind of small family-run winter vegetable farm as the one I grew up on. In fact, the year I was born in 1955 family stories have Rod as a kid riding the back of my Dad’s mules during the last year our fathers used the animals to make the eggplant seedbeds – after that it was all about tractors. Later, he worked his way through law school on a family cattle ranch he and his parents put together in Alachua, near the University of Florida, where he and his family still live today.

Rod is a handful of years older and therefore was several years ahead of me in school too. But later on when he was in law school and I was just entering college near Gainesville, we worked side-by-side building fence and working cattle on that Alachua farm that he and his Dad, Warren, were turning into a cattle ranch at the time. They called it War-Rod Angus Ranch after their father-son partnership, and it was the first time I had ever worked around cattle. It was hard work, and long days, but the experience made for some great memories, and a few close calls. And yes, both he and I worked the post-hole diggers as we fenced and cross-fenced the entire place one summer, except for the times he had to “go to class” at the university. On those hot summer afternoons I was left solo on the diggers while Rod escaped to the air-conditioned confines of his scheduled law classes, muddy boots and all.
Rod Smith on the ranch in younger years
Rod was pretty good on horseback back in those days. He had spent some time before college in Texas on the famous King Ranch, and I’m still waiting on some of those stories to be told. But when we were working cattle on War-Rod Angus in Alachua, I was in much better shape than I am now, too. Herding the cattle, Rod’s father Warren worked most often from his pickup truck, while Rod was on horseback, and I ran barefoot believe it or not. Yes, I was in much better shape back then for sure. One of the close calls I mentioned was the time when a favored ranch bull singled me out – I guess I was an easy mark being all alone in shorts and barefoot, running among the herd – I barely made it under the side fence in time. Rod joked that I was one of the best cow-dogs he’d ever seen work. His sense of humor is unmatched in family circles too, at least in our generation of the family.

I realize that many of my friends in Florida agriculture have differing political views from race to race, and over time. I also realize that our ag media company will be covering this statewide race and others from an agriculture perspective through the remainder of this political season. We also hope to attract at least some advertising and outreach investment from some of the statewide campaigns too, from those who have a hankering to target our farm and ranch audience with a message about their campaigns and candidacies.

But political party rhetoric aside, I can truly say we in the family are obviously proud of our cousin the politician, even though some of us wonder why he would leave his successful law practice, again, to enter public life. I guess it is a good thing, though, when good people want to be in public service. Goodness knows we need all the good folks we can get to help straighten out what has become a very complex situation in so many ways.

Too often, it seems mainstream politicians only mention agriculture when a crisis is at hand, or when other interests are out to attack the industry in one way or another. And so it goes in this state, the Nation’s fourth most populous, also a top ten state in agriculture production. Trouble is, most of the people that call Florida home don’t have a clue as to how important agriculture is to all of us in Florida, no matter what profession you might be in…and to agriculture people, that communications gap remains at the core of most issues facing Florida’s future.

Gary Cooper, Founder, Southeast AgNet, Inc.
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