Job offersmore »

Specialsmore »

Top 5 - yesterday

Top 5 - last week

Top 5 - last month

Exchange ratesmore »

A+ | A-
Agriculture happy with 2007 session

Florida farmers didn’t get everything they wanted in the 2007 legislative session. But they’re happy with what they got — and didn’t get. “Agriculture came out pretty well,” said Jay Taylor, president of Taylor & Fulton Inc., a Palmetto-based vegetable grower with fields in Immokalee.

Legislators did much to help keep the state’s farms in business, from broadening tax breaks on the electricity they use to keeping the “greenbelt” rules in place that save them millions of dollars in property taxes. Butch Calhoun, director of government affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, describes the session as “above average” for agriculture.

“We passed about half of the bills that we wanted to pass and we didn’t have any bad bills pass. I think that in itself is a win,” he said.

Farmers and their advocates successfully fought several bills that would have made it harder for growers to qualify for and keep their greenbelt classification, which allows them to pay taxes based on the property’s productive value, not on its market value. One of those bills would have yanked the exemption away from farmers who knowingly hire contractors who employ illegal immigrants.

“Nothing passed on that,” Calhoun said. “But we are watching the special session coming up to see what they do with property tax reform. If they give homeowners a break, they may try to make it up somewhere else.” Legislators plan a special session to tackle property tax reform, starting June 12. So far, Calhoun said he’s heard no discussion of the greenbelt classification coming up.

In the special session, the agriculture industry hopes to see lawmakers agree to exempt businesses from paying tangible personal property tax on the first $25,000 worth of assets. Ultimately, it would require a constitutional amendment. “I always thought that’s crazy. If a farmer buys equipment he has to pay a tax on it every year. Of course it’s like that with any business,” Calhoun said.

The tangible personal property tax is collected on everything from the tractors that farmers run to the dishes on which they eat. Gov. Charlie Crist has signed the legislation giving farmers broader sales tax exemptions on electricity.

In the 2006 session, the Legislature approved a sales tax exemption for electricity used directly in farm production. It will now be extended to the electricity growers use in their offices, sheds and repair shops. Annually, it’s expected to save agriculture another $3.5 million.

“It will be a great savings for our farmers,” said Ben Parks, director of state legislative affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau. “A lot more farmers are using electricity than fuel.”

Lawmakers passed and Crist signed a general agriculture bill that includes revisions to pesticide registration fees and a new requirement for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to conduct food safety inspections at tomato fields and packing houses.

Growers have agreed to pay for the inspections. “They can say their crop has been inspected and it’s safe,” Calhoun said. “It actually may become a marketing tool for them.” The awareness of food safety has increased dramatically since an E. coli outbreak was traced to spinach in California last year. Florida’s tomato growers started working on a food safety plan even before that happened, Taylor said.

He said the program has attracted the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “I know that the FDA in Washington is looking upon this initiative with favor,” Taylor said. “They like what we have done. I’m sure it will be a model for what is going to emerge nationwide.” The comprehensive program is a first-of-a-kind anywhere in the country.

“Florida is the nation’s largest producer of fresh tomatoes, and our department and industry are committed to doing all that we can to make sure that our crop is the safest that it possibly can be,” Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said in a written statement. Crist signed the general agricultural bill Thursday. It also includes new permitting requirements for milk operations.

Legislators set aside $20 million for the state Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to build a pilot plant at the University of Florida to produce cellulosic ethanol, which comes from agricultural waste such as citrus peels and sugar cane stalks. They budgeted $26 million for a grants program to encourage the development of alternative energy, including ethanol plants.

Lawmakers approved $3.8 million for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to promote agriculture. In the past, the marketing programs have increased sales by an “exponential amount,” said Liz Compton, a department spokeswoman. “The return back on our dollar has been phenomenal,” she said.

Legislators approved a budget for the department that included $4 million for firefighting equipment and $800,000 to replace planes in the forestry division. They set aside money for three more law enforcement officers to man the agriculture department’s 23 inspection stations.

The department wanted $12 million for renovations to farmers’ markets across Florida. But Crist vetoed that when he cut a record $459 million from the new state budget Thursday. He also cut $1.6 million out of the budget for aquaculture projects, including $500,000 for a research center in Ruskin. “We were very surprised,” said Parks with the Florida Farm Bureau.

“We got most of what we wanted,” Compton said. “Obviously everyone had to give a little.” Farmers are expected to benefit from a bill lawmakers approved to promote agritourism. Crist has yet to sign it. The legislation directs the state’s agriculture department to work with the industry and others to provide fun, educational programs on farms.

While agritourism isn’t big business in Southwest Florida, the measure could encourage growers here to do more to attract tourists, supplementing their income. “It’s something we’ve looked at,” said Jack Wert, Collier County’s tourism director. “We’ve actually talked to some of the transportation companies in our area to see if there is some interest in developing an agritour of the farm areas and there is some interest.”

In general, he said, it should be good for tourism in the state. “We have 33 rural counties in Florida. So there is a lot of land out there that certainly could benefit from this push on agritourism,” Wert said. In the agritourism bill, lawmakers also took on trespass concerns on farms, increasing penalties for violators and easing requirements for posting “No Trespassing” signs.

Under the measure, growers can paint “No Trespassing” on trees and fence posts in orange letters, instead of having to put up so many separate signs. Conventional signs still are required at exits and entrances. The bill also gives farmers immunity when trespassers are injured on their property. “If somebody comes on your property and is a trespasser and gets hurt, the growers should not be liable,” said Calhoun, with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

The association closely tracked environmental bills during the session. It supported legislation that will improve water quality in the Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. For growers in those areas, it will mean a greater focus on water and nutrient management.

“If I had to sum it up, it was a good session,” Calhoun said. “Anytime that you pass bills that will help you and are able to defeat bad bills that will hurt you, you had a good session.”

The List

Agriculture wasn’t spared in the $459 million in spending Gov. Charlie Crist cut from the new state budget.

Here’s what’s on the veto list for agriculture:

• $250,000 in grants and aid for the Florida State Fair

• $1 million for maintenance, repairs and construction statewide

• $1 million for the Florida Horse Park and Agricultural Center

• $12 million for repairs and renovations to the state farmers’ markets.

• $1 million for the DeSoto Arcadia Rodeo complex

• $460,000 for the Dixie Multipurpose Outdoor Pavilion

• $1 million for the Flagler Agriculture Education and Promotion facility

• $750,000 for the Hardee County Fairground Cattleman’s Arena

• $1.75 million for the Jefferson County Agriculture and Community Development Center

• $584,551 for the Polk County Agriculture Center

• $200,000 for the Sarasota County Fair

• $500,000 for the Seminole Historical Museum

• $500,000 for the Wakulla Expo

• $1,148,461 for the Aquaculture Review Council’s list of priority projects

• $500,000 for Aquaculture research and extension enhancement.


Publication date: 6/4/2007


Receive the daily newsletter in your email for free | Click here


Other news in this sector: