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How COVID (Almost) Reshaped Florida Agriculture, And Why It Still Might

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For a moment it looked like a major shift was underway in Florida agriculture, as more local produce was consumed locally. It didn't completely pan out, but hopes remain high.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold in the United States, Florida was the only state that was in the middle of its primary harvest season. Thanks to the state’s southern latitude, while most of the country is in its winter and early spring months, Florida farmers are busy planting and harvesting tomatoes, squash, eggplant, bell peppers, papaya, strawberries and more.

But as restaurants closed down across the nation, supply chains were broken. Farmers found themselves without anywhere to send their produce and literally tons of food ended up going to waste.

Sam Accursio, a longtime farmer of land in South Dade, destroyed much of his harvest. Paying workers to pick the produce didn’t make financial sense if there was nowhere to sell it to and local food banks were already overwhelmed with the amount of local produce they were given.

Then he had an idea.

If Accursio couldn't ship his produce hundreds of miles away, he decided to start selling his produce locally. The idea took off and long lines of cars started to line up at his farm to buy boxes of tomatoes, squash and other items.

“You know it’s a win-win,” he told WLRN last year. “The farmer is at least getting some of his cost back, but the consumer is getting produce that is so fresh and so cheap. They don’t see these type of prices in the store level.”

For a moment it looked like a major shift was underway. Locals were reconnecting with local agriculture in a way that had not been seen in years.

“You’re gonna start seeing a change in human behavior, even after COVID, which I keep saying is almost a silver lining in all of this,” Nikki Fried, Florida’s Democratic agriculture commissioner told WLRN at the time.

Fried hoped the shift in behavior could put more money in the pockets of struggling Florida farmers who, unlike the rest of the nation, compete directly with the Mexican growing season due to the state’s latitude and the nations’ mutual free trade agreement.

Her office set up a public website where farmers could post what they have for sale by county. It was such a hit that the Department of Agriculture decided to revamp and update the site, said Fried.

But the most enthusiasm in the state seemed to coalesce around a pilot program that brought local Florida produce to the state’s massive prison system.

The pilot only lasted a few weeks but saved taxpayers more than $25,000 compared to the produce usually shipped in from California and Mexico. The number is not huge, but when stretched across a full year, and considering that more of the state government money was staying local and it proved cheaper than produce shipped from afar, the idea had legs.

“Why would you not want to take state dollars and reinvest it in our state and our farmers and our jobs?” Fried asked last year. “I think you’re starting to see a lot more of that.”

This was the height of optimism. But the program turned out to only be a one-time deal. A bill was filed in the Legislature to make this kind of program permanent — not just in the prison system — but in other state agencies. And then reality set it. The bill died in committee.

“Which is very disappointing,” said Fried. “So now we’re gonna have to spend more time educating those agencies and really getting them in touch with their local farmers and working with them to do purchasing at the local level.”

Why the pilot program fizzled

Once the pilot program was underway, the biggest problem to solve was transportation. Florida has farmers across the state, offering everything from corn and tomatoes to dairy, eggs and berries. The question was how to get the goods into prisons while meeting requirements specific to the prison system, including stipulations for things like no staples being allowed on crates.

Growers and farmer groups got to work to figure it out. Jenn Bynoe, an agricultural consultant who was working with the Dade County Farm Bureau at the time, played an important role in solving the puzzle.

“This program was unique because it was able to handle the logistics and the requirements of picking, packing and shipping that was needed to support the Department of Corrections,” she said. “And we did it within just a few weeks.”

What allowed the Farm-To-Prison Pilot Program to take off in the first place was an executive order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March of last year. It let state agencies do unorthodox things — like buy food directly from growers — when it came to their supply chains, because of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, once that executive order came to a close, the producers were no longer to engage with the Department of Corrections,” Bynoe said.

In a statement to WLRN, the Department of Corrections said it has since “reverted to normal business practices” for buying food, which typically runs through a single contract with Florida-based company Cheney Bros. State records show much of the produce is shipped in from Mexico, although some of it is locally sourced.

The department said local growers are welcome to forge their own relationships with Cheney Bros., or that they are able to submit their own bids for contracts when they open.

“The agencies don’t get to think outside the box,” said Fried. “A lot of them have the person inside their agencies that do purchasing that have developed relationships with these separate vendor contracts and companies, and they don’t like change, and it might take a little bit extra work to be thinking outside the box and to find where the local produce is grown.”

In Florida political circles, Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes is known as a top advocate for improving the state prison system. The St. Petersburg Republican works closely with the Department of Corrections, and he spearheaded the Farm-To-Prison Pilot Program.

Brandes said the prison system is completely overwhelmed. The Department of Corrections houses about 96,000 inmates and has perpetual issues of underfunding and high-rates of employee turnover. The department is, by far, the largest of the state government.

“We need to make it easy for them to do the right thing. And then they’re gonna do the right thing,” said Brandes, speaking about buying more local produce. “When we talk about adding more things to what they’re already managing, they’re juggling knives. And so you’re throwing extra things in there for them to continue to juggle and manage and those tend to get pushed to the side, especially in years when we’re not trying to help both parties.”

The right political timing is important to address the issue, stressed Brandes. And while there’s bipartisan support for sourcing more produce locally, political leadership needs to take up the mantle.

“Really, what we’re talking about is the budget,” said Brandes. “What we need is just a commitment to ensuring that when we’re purchasing fruits and vegetables we’re looking at Florida first.”

The bill that would have made these kinds of programs permanent passed the Agriculture Committee in the Florida Senate unanimously, with both Republican and Democratic support. The sponsor of that bill was fellow St. Petersburg state Sen. Darryl Rouson, Democratic chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

“It would require state agencies, universities and colleges to give preference to food commodities grown or produced in the state,” Rouson said.

In addition to giving preference to local produce, the bill would have created an explicit state goal that at least 15% of food commodities bought by state agencies would come from Florida farmers by 2030.

“I think that would have been a game changer in terms of local markets,” Rouson said.

There were a number of other provisions in the bill, including a section that would have made breakfast free for all elementary school students in the state and create grant programs to start and support local food pantries using local produce.

Rouson said, behind the scenes, there were worries about the total cost of the bill, especially amid widespread worries that the state was going to be short on money due to the pandemic.

“As it turned out we had a lot of extra money,” said Rouson. “We’re gonna come back at this next year. Sometimes it takes a couple of sessions to get a good idea through.”

'I think it’s here to stay’

South Dade farmer Sam Accursio sold produce to the prison program and said not extending that is a huge missed opportunity for the state, and for farmers in general.

But in other ways, Accursio said the pandemic did bring other welcome changes.

This growing season he set up a mini market right on his farm to sell boxes of food directly to people in South Florida. Unlike in 2020, when it was unclear how the coronavirus was transmitted, people can walk up to the market he set up this year.

And the market itself is a carryover from what he started at the very beginning of the pandemic.

“We were building on the network that we created because there was such a following and such a need for cheap, affordable food,” Accursio said.

His company regularly posted updates about available produce on Instagram and Facebook, and received a steady stream of visitors. He partnered with a farmer’s market in South Miami to sell his produce and has started selling to an increasing number of restaurants in Miami, and the Florida Keys, that are making it a point to source local foods whenever possible.

Selling locally is not a majority of his business but it’s a sharp uptick from two seasons ago, when the share of food he sold locally was negligible.

“If I had to take an educated guess I would say maybe 8%,” he said. “I think it’s here to stay. It’s not as big as I want it to be and that’s where the farmer’s market that we have reopened — it’s another tool to talk to consumers to demand American grown.”

Accursio is increasingly worried about the ability of the United States to feed itself and for the ability of farmers to stay in business. Those concerns are especially true inside Florida, which competes directly with produce from Mexico. Many Florida farmers were vocally opposed to the Trump administration’s renewed free trade deal with Mexico and Canada for that reason, even as many supported him politically.

Accursio met directly with former President Donald Trump after the 2020 election urging help.

“We were excited when we left the meeting but, as you well know, the president wasn’t reelected,” Accursio said.

Even with free trade in place, he sees creating local relationships and strengthening local and regional supply chains as a way to build local resilience to globalizing forces.

Small changes he is seeing in local markets are welcome, he said. But directing government agencies to buy more produce locally could be the salvation of Florida’s troubled agricultural industry.

He said he hopes, somehow, some way, that the Legislature will make better access to Florida produce a priority for years to come.

“We need to keep fighting and moving forward and speaking to our lawmakers because that’s our only hope,” said Accursio. “There’s a lot of people making a lot of money off of delivering into the — we’ll pick on the prison system again — delivering into them. And it should be coming to Florida growers first.”

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM.