A visit with Commissioner of Agriculture candidate Nikki Fried

Nikki Fried, left, talks with Carl Frost at Frost’s Kai Kai Farm in Indiantown.

Nicole “Nikki” Fried (D) was born and raised in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a law degree. Nikki worked for the Alachua County Public Defender’s office after law school, where she was the head of the Felony Division. For the Commissioner of Agriculture’s post, she’s running against Matt Caldwell (R-79th District), who was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2010 and chaired the committee which oversees natural resources, transportation and infrastructure, and government operations, such as pensions and elections.

Nikki Fried was on a busy schedule, as she has been for months in her campaign to meet with as many farmers as she can to let them know about her perspective on their business—one of Florida’s biggest and most influential industries.

With the election nearing and so much focus on the role of agriculture in the fight for cleaner Florida waterways, I thought it was appropriate to meet with Fried, a candidate for Commissioner of Agriculture, as she visited with Carl Frost at his Kai-Kai Farms in Indiantown.

The main subjects of discussion between Fried and Frost: how farmers use best management practices to limit nutrient flows from fertilizers into local waterways and how the state can help those efforts. The Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services doesn’t oversee all water policies, but the position has oversight on water quality rules when it comes to Florida’s agriculture industry and has influence as a member of the cabinet in overseeing the Department of Environmental Protection.

“From red tide to green algae,” Fried told me, “to increased pollution at an all-time high in Lake Okeechobee, what we’re doing is not working. I’ve traveled our state and seen the suffering from Fort Myers to Stuart. It’s hurting local businesses, destroying ecosystems, and making people sick.

“This isn’t an issue that can be solved with one action or policy, but we need leaders who will make action a priority and will take a proactive, long-term approach to water policy—if we’re only working to solve these problems when they have intensified to extreme levels, we will not prevail.”

Carl led us on a tour of his small farm, which grows a wide variety of greens and vegetables. Under Carl and his wife Diane Cordeau, Kai Kai has been in operation for about 20 years, selling its produce to the public in markets, by subscription agreement, and to chefs at restaurants. Kai Kai has also had good success with farm-to-table dinners, where chefs create menus that include some of Kai Kai’s fresh produce, all served in the great, open-air commons room on location. There’s often live music and other activities for kids and adults on the nights of these farm-to-table dinners.

Carl explained to us some of his farm’s incredibly complex irrigation and drainage mechanisms. Irrigation and rain water is controlled, held and cleaned as it moves through drainage ponds on its way off his farm to canals, the St. Lucie River and ultimately, to the Atlantic Ocean. The water flow off the farm and neighboring properties, including the swales, spillways, ditches, weirs and canals, is all monitored by the South Florida Water Management District.

A complex network of irrigation and drainage features at Kai Kai Farm help to control water flow and runoff, part of best management practices in the farming industry.

“There are certain state cost-share programs that help farmers to defray some of the costs of the equipment that is used to control irrigation and runoff, and those programs are incredibly helpful if you can take advantage of them,” he said. “But there are ongoing costs for that equipment—for instance, the computers that control your irrigation systems, and they need maintenance, and it would be great if some of these maintenance costs were eligible for some form of credit or rebate. Then the equipment is obsolete pretty fast. It’s a rough environment for it. If there were better programs for cost sharing, that would help farmers to adopt the best practices,” Frost said.

“We’ve made a lot of these improvements voluntarily, and they’re expensive, including the drain tiles that we installed below the surface,” he continued. “Even after all the water flow concerns, we still have the nitrogen and phosphorus issues, which we have to address with best management practices.”

Fried acknowledged his concerns, indicating that she’s heard similar sentiments in her travels. “We must build a stronger partnership between our state and our agriculture industry in terms of water management practices,” she said. “Currently, many comply with best management practices and clean their runoff water. In order to bring more farmers and ranchers to the table, we need a new approach that allows our agriculture community to keep up with the changing technology in a cost-effective manner.”

Fried said she believes that the Department of Agriculture should work closely with University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to ensure that innovative and cutting-edge research is being used to set goals and drive policies for compliance. Many of the state’s agricultural extension agent positions, whose job it was to educate farmers on best management practices, have been eliminated in funding cuts in recent years.

“Many of the agents that remain,” Carl said, “are overwhelmed with keeping up with new regulations that prevent them from getting out to educate farmers on best practices. There’s an entire new slew of regulations concerning food safety that didn’t even exist 25 years ago, and now extension agents and farmers are consumed with complying with these.”

Fried said that she would advocate for more funding from the legislature to support cost share programs for advanced equipment and to hire more personnel to work with the agriculture community and implement policies to drive results. She also said she believes that the state needs more long-term water storage projects, prioritized by region.

“Working with our agriculture community, we can increase storage capacity and help reduce the need for discharges from Lake Okeechobee and minimize the growth of algae blooms. Whether it’s through dispersed water management, reservoirs, aquifer storage and recovery, or other strategies—we must be working in cooperation with all stakeholders to ensure our efforts have maximum results.”

“Let’s remember that everyone who grows a lawn is a farmer,” Carl said. “They’re farming grass. Everyone who goes to a golf course is enjoying farming, too. We’re farming vegetables here, and we think that’s pretty important if we want to eat.

“Let’s face it,” Carl told me. “There are good actors and bad actors in every industry, but we are committed to being good stewards of our lands and waterways. There’s already so much regulation, and it’s so expensive to comply with it, that it sets up big barriers to entry to smaller farmers to getting started. But we think small farms are

important in our communities. But because of how hard it is for small farmers to make it financially, there’s a trend toward consolidation, so you’re getting bigger and bigger farms. It’s going to take leadership at all levels of government, if we want to support small farming in our communities and improve our farming practices for our mutual benefit.”

Florida’s water troubles stemming from over nutrification from agriculture, residential and commercial development, and waste disposal systems are not intractable problems. If they are given priority at the state level, with funds devoted to projects for their improvement, they can, over time, be fixed.

Other regions of the country like Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River, and Long Island have seen equally as bad pollution problems, and elected officials and industries in those regions have been pressured strongly enough by the citizenry to implement solutions. We desperately need the same willingness to change our ways and implement remedies to improve our state’s inland and coastal waters.

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