As Florida lawmakers look to reduce foreign ownership of farmland, Senate Agriculture Chairman Jay Collins said Wednesday he thinks growth is possible for the state’s agriculture industry.
But first, the freshman Republican senator from Tampa said the goal is to bring stability to the industry, which was battered by Hurricane Ian and has struggled for decades with foreign competition, residential and commercial development and a disease deadly to citrus crops.
“We’re going to build a consensus working with people, both left and right, to solve problems, because ultimately our farmers are worth fighting for, just like freedoms worth fighting for,” Collins said.
A preliminary report from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services estimated Ian’s overall agricultural damages at $1.18 billion to $1.9 billion, with citrus damage accounting for about one-third of the total.
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“We have to stabilize those farmers who lost so much whether it was a cattleman, dairy farmers, citrus, strawberries, whoever else was affected,” Collins said. “We have to make sure we look at that very diligently.
Lawmakers have not determined how much money they could include in the budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year to help farmers affected by Ian. The budget will be put together during the legislative session that starts March 7.
“We’re going to look at the numbers … see how we can keep things pushing forward. And we’re going to figure out what the right number is,” Collins said after his committee met Wednesday.
Collins, who said his family lost its farm as he grew up because of “bad economic situations,” also laid out a series of issues he wants his committee to focus on heading into the session. That ranges from relatively small bills to reduce regulations on such things as signs and fencing to larger efforts to attract more veterans into farming and limit foreign ownership of agricultural lands.
“Foreign ownership of ag land is something we have to come to terms with,” Collins said.
Newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and Collins, along with a group of state House members, in early December outlined proposed legislation to restrict foreign ownership of agricultural lands.
In a news release at the time, they said an estimated 1.3 million acres of agricultural land in Florida was under foreign ownership in 2020. The effort would be intended to restrict the purchase or holding of controlling interests in agricultural land and certain land near military bases.
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Along with goals discussed Wednesday by Collins, Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, said attention needs to remain on the aquaculture industry, particularly oyster farmers, mostly across Northwest Florida.
“They’re struggling,” Simon said. “So, we want to make sure that we’re showing reverence to the work that they do, the importance of that work.”
The state budget for the current year included several line items to help the struggling oyster industry, such as $160,000 for oyster planting, $500,000 for Choctawhatchee Bay oyster revitalization in Walton County and $495,000 for a similar effort in the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who chaired the Agriculture Committee during the past two years, said lawmakers also need to ensure “fairness” for Black growers in awarding medical marijuana licenses.
“There’s a significant part of the agriculture community that needs to be respected,” Rouson said.
A 2017 law required the state to set aside one medical-marijuana license for Black farmers. The Department of Health last year announced its intent to award the Black farmer license to a Suwannee County grower, but the agency’s decision is being challenged by losing applicants.