News-Press: What are farmers saying about Ron DeSantis' environmental policy?

Article Posted on January 29, 2019

By: Amy Bennett Williams, Fort Myers News-Press

After three tough decades of orange growing in Hendry County, Wayne Simmons has perfected his wait-and-see attitude. But he's also got a strong strain of determined optimism, and when it comes to Ron DeSantis’ new administration, Simmons finds himself relying on both.

Florida’s new governor got off to a strong environmental start. With a sweeping, water-focused executive order and a request that the board of the South Florida Water Management District resign, he surprised even many longtime political observers.

Many stakeholders on the state’s coasts, especially those hard-hit by such relentlessly red tide- and toxic algae-fouled water that DeSantis’ predecessor declared multiple states of emergency, have publicly applauded the new governor’s direction.

But the agricultural community, regularly scapegoated by some activists and nonprofits for the state’s water woes, has largely remained quiet.

“I haven’t seen any public statements at all by the usual suspects, like Judy Sanchez,” said Hendry County Extension Service Director Gene McAvoy. Sanchez is U.S. Sugar’s spokeswoman, and often weighs in on topics at the intersection of agriculture and the environment. She did not respond to repeated phone or emailed requests for comment for this story. Nor did representatives of Duda and Frierson Farms, the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce and Lipman Produce.

McAvoy chalks it up to that well-honed, wait-and-see attitude. “I think everybody is anxious to figure out what it all means before they say anything,” he said. “We don’t really know. It’s a little early to tell."

As for DeSantis’ executive order, McAvoy said “It all sounds good on paper, but it leads me to believe he may not have a good grasp on the realities of the situation,” he said. “To put it in a nutshell, it’s a lot easier said than done. There are a lot of moving parts.”

For his part, though, Simmons likes what he’s heard of DeSantis’ order. “I’m in perfect harmony with that. I think there’s some good parts of it.” He’s especially impressed with the creation of a chief science officer position. ”If everything’s based on sound science, I think that’s good,” he said. “But it’s going to be interesting to see how it performs in the next 12 to 18 months.”

He does differ with the governor’s approach to the water management district board.

”I think (asking for resignations) is a little shortsighted. I’m certainly not here to criticize him,” he said, “but the directors … have programs that they’ve started and want to see implemented, and it’s an extremely hard learning curve.” He likens DeSantis to a new CEO. “Most don’t just come in there and clean out their whole board of directors and start over.”

DeSantis' office did not return calls and emails requesting comment. On Jan. 10, he said, “We want to make sure we have everyone in the boat rowing the same way,” so “we really need to have a fresh start ... A lot of times, politicians forget what they promised during the campaign. When I say things, I mean them, so I’m coming here today to follow through.”

One of Simmons’ fondest hopes for the coming four years is that coastal communities might learn more about the importance of the state’s farmers…

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