Agriculture has continued to be Florida’s second largest industry for many years now. Even so, the industry itself is still a mystery to many who live in Florida’s sprawling suburbia.
Our congressional district proudly boasts the top cattle producing county (Osceola) and usual top citrus producing county (Polk). Just take a short drive out of your neighborhood, and you will be surrounded by cow pastures, citrus groves, rows of berries, tomatoes, greenhouses and maybe even Florida peaches.
I asked to serve on the U.S. House Agricultural Committee specifically to help meet the needs of this critical economic driver in our state, and to protect a way of life for many of our constituents. We currently face many major challenges such as citrus greening, livestock disease, and natural disasters. However, we also have an opportunity to pioneer high-tech agricultural solutions right here in Central Florida.
Our citrus industry is amid a tremendous greening epidemic caused by a tiny Asian citrus psyllid that attacks trees’ roots. It has reduced our production by over 70 percent historically.
In response, we have provided over $166 million in federal funds over the last five years for research, including at the University of Florida’s Extension Services in Lake Alfred. This research has yielded more resistant rootstocks, more effective root nutrient and moisture health strategies, advanced pesticides and more effective, coordinated spraying, intensified greenhouse groves and introduction of natural predators.
In addition, local growers have discovered the importance of trace fertilizer minerals in boosting the trees’ natural immune systems. I also successfully passed an amendment in the recent omnibus spending bill to secure an additional $1 million in funding for the Specialty Crop Pest Program to further assist in these efforts.
I will continue to push for critical policies and funding in the upcoming farm bill. We can solve this crisis with scientific research, grower ingenuity and sufficient resources.
Our cattle ranchers continue to enjoy growing healthy herds but face fluctuating prices in the market. It is critical that we develop a national vaccine bank to protect our livestock from Mad Cow Disease, ticks and other known bovine pests. Last year, the USDA and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services officials stopped a screwworm epidemic among Key deer from spreading to Florida’s livestock through the release of sterile flies. This successful intervention only highlights the vulnerability of America’s livestock, and why I will continue to push for a national vaccine bank in our upcoming farm bill.
Central Florida agriculture is still suffering from major damage caused by Hurricane Irma. Our citrus growers lost 50 percent of their recent crop, cattlemen are experiencing lower calf birthrates, and many row crops were decimated.
I was proud to support the recent disaster relief package in February that approved over $2.3 billion to assist Florida’s citrus growers, cattlemen and other farmers. However, the vast majority of the funds are still in Washington and yet to be disbursed by the Trump administration. It is critical that our USDA leaders, such as Secretary Sonny Perdue and Florida Director Neil Combee, cut the red tape and deliver this relief without further delay.
Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio already sent out a bipartisan letter urging these funds be expedited, and I am coordinating a similar, bipartisan Florida delegation letter in the House of Representatives.
Finally, I am working on important language for the farm bill that will further boost development of agriculture technology for Central Florida.
During a recent committee hearing, Secretary Perdue expressed a firm commitment of his interest in developing sensors, automation and other critical advances. The University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida, Osceola County and other partners have already entered into a joint venture and created an advanced sensor manufacturing facility (BRIDG) in our district. As a result, we are in a prime position to develop advanced sensors and automated systems to monitor everything from disease, to moisture and nutrients, to ripeness and sugar content, to cattle health, and beyond.
These new technologies could increase yields and quality, provide more high paying jobs for our region and help reduce national hunger. With critical policy, funding and coordinated efforts, our district is well-positioned to be a technology center of excellence for the future of America’s agriculture.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto of Kissimmee represents Florida’s 9th Congressional District, which includes Osceola County and parts of Orange and Polk counties.