Proposed county budget would gut funding for agriculture

images (3) The county’s proposed budget would gut services to Miami-Dade’s $2.7-billion agriculture industry. Growers say the cuts are disrespectful to a major economic engine.

There’s a long way between County Hall and the avocado groves of Redland, the rows of tomatoes in Homestead and the plant nurseries of deep South Miami-Dade.

But more than miles seem to separate county government from the county’s $2.7 billion agriculture industry, growers say.

The budget proposed last week by Mayor Carlos Gimenez guts or completely eliminates services to farmers, nursery growers and others in South Dade.

Agriculture folks say the dramatic reductions reflect how out-of-touch County Hall is when it comes to farming in Miami-Dade.

“If they truly understood the value and the asset that this is, I think they might show a little more respect for it,” said Debbie Brady a spokeswoman for the Dade County Farm Bureau.

Under the proposed budget, the county would eliminate the Agricultural Manager’s Office, which serves as a liaison between growers and the government. Also gutted: the county’s funding for the cooperative extension office, a partnership with the University of Florida which provides research and education for farmers, and programs for youth and families.

The cuts would represent a savings of about $1.2 million — tiny, compared to the impact of the county’s second largest industry.

There are currently 60,000 acres in agricultural production in Miami-Dade, directly employing 20,000 people, according to the agricultural manager’s website. That number jumps to more than 176,000 if you factor in the truck drivers who ship the food and plants, the supermarket employees who shelve them and other ancillary positions, according to a UF study cited by Brady.

The county is also the largest source of green beans in the state, supplies the rest of the country with fresh veggies during the winter months, and is the only place in the country that can grow some tropical fruits.

“South Dade is the county’s garden, and we need to protect it. We do that with the agencies that are full force down here,” said Sidney Robinson, who grows avocadoes and mangoes on his 7.5-acre farm in Redland.

With a budget of about $300,000, the agriculture manager’s office, headed by long-time, well-known farmer Charles LaPradd, serves as a link between growers and the government.

When severe freezes caused millions of dollars in damage to crops and plants, LaPradd’s office led the way for obtaining a federal disaster declaration and the money that comes with it. When farmers were slammed with high gas prices, the office helped secure millions in grants to help buy more fuel-efficient diesel engines for their equipment. The office also started the Redland Raised program, which promotes locally-grown foods, with federal grant money.

Without the agricultural manager’s office, growers are afraid their voice will be muted.

“It took a long time to build a relationship with our government to have agriculture be recognized,” said Brady, the farm bureau spokeswoman.

If the cooperative extension office were to go, farmers would lose access to research on how to combat pests and diseases, business owners would have to drive for hours to attend classes for continuing education credits and the elimination of its 4-H program would leave hundreds of children with nothing to do.

“When it comes to food safety, pests and certain breaking issues, sometimes the extension center is the 911 of the agriculture world, because they can respond,” said Mike Hatcher, a plant nursery manager for Landscaper’s Paradise in Redland.

Lynda Bell, a former Homestead mayor who represents deep South Dade on the County Commission, was sympathetic but made no promises Friday. In e-mailed statements, she said agriculture is an “economic driver stays at the forefront of my agenda,” and that farmers must have a voice at County Hall. But she added that budget cuts are needed, and did not specifically say she would oppose the elimination of the agricultural manager’s office or cuts to ag extension.

“As my staff and I go over the mayor’s proposed budget, we will continue looking for ways to improve on the agricultural industry’s link to county government,” she said.

Every county has an extension office that is run in conjunction with land-grant universities such as UF. Land-grant universities were created by the Morrill Act of 1862, which established public universities through the granting of federal lands, according to the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities. The universities were originally established, in part, to teach agriculture, according to the association.

The county is looking to cut more than $800,000 from the local extension office, which would reduce its staff of 19 to eight. But the office would also lose its state funding through UF, since that funding is provided as a match to the county money.

Without the extension or the agricultural manager’s office, where would farmers turn for information and support?

Said Robinson, the avocado and mango grower: “That’s a good question. I don’t really know.”

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