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As Florida farmlands diminish, why is agriculture commissioner a Cabinet-level job?

Adam Putnam, then a U.S. representative from Bartow, checks on freeze damage at a Hillsborough County orange grove as he embarks on what would be a successful run in 2010 to become Florida Agriculture commissioner.  With him is Michael W. Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.
Adam Putnam, then a U.S. representative from Bartow, checks on freeze damage at a Hillsborough County orange grove as he embarks on what would be a successful run in 2010 to become Florida Agriculture commissioner. With him is Michael W. Sparks, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual.
Published Dec. 12, 2016

Should the Florida Department of Agriculture change its name? Or should agriculture commissioner be eliminated as one of just three Cabinet-level positions?

Those questions have surfaced through the years as agriculture's economic footprint on Florida continues to erode.

John Morgan, the well-known personal injury attorney considering a run for governor in 2018 as a Democrat, is among the latest to suggest that the job of agriculture commissioner — a title that has been around more than 130 years — is overblown in importance in today's economy and should be scrapped.

In strong disagreement: the current Agriculture Commissioner and presumptive Republican front-runner for the governor's race, Adam Putnam.

"I have worked to shape a modern, relevant role for the Department of Agriculture in the state that is now the third-most populous in the country, but still has agriculture as a pillar of its economy that justifies the attention it gets from a Cabinet-level agency," Putnam said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. For instance, he says, amid the sharp decline in citrus, Florida is pouring more attention into crops such as blueberries and the laboratory-refined Florida peach.

One thing is clear, though: The department's reshaping through the years has created an agency that isn't singularly focused any more on the core definition of agriculture — growing crops and raising livestock.

Read More: Dying on the vine: Florida's shriveling agriculture industry can't shake the fall of citrus, loss of land

Today, a whopping 70 percent of the department's $1.7 billion budget goes toward a school nutrition program that Putnam's department took over from the Department of Education five years ago. It has 285 employees assigned to its consumer protection unit, a role tacked on to the department some 45 years ago. As consumer watchdog, among other jobs, the agriculture department is in charge of preventing gas skimming, putting stickers with Putnam's name on them on gas station pumps statewide.

The department has more employees in forestry than anything else. Among its 16 divisions are an office of energy, an aquaculture division and a unit focused on water policy.

Some critics say the department's growing tentacles help it prop up its importance.

Tom Swihart, now-retired longtime water policy chief at the Department of Environmental Protection, has long accused the state's agricultural industry of overstating its importance as it has simultaneously been a major drain on the state's water resources.

Why does agriculture merit a Cabinet-level post, Swihart asks, "even though they are a teeny tiny part of the Florida economy?"

As a percentage of Florida's economy, agriculture was four times bigger in the 1960s compared with today.

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Last year, agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting combined contributed less than $6.3 billion to Florida's economic output of $883 billion, federal data shows.

The financial services juggernaut — finance, insurance, retail and leasing — accounted for nearly $200 billion of the total. Florida's relatively small manufacturing industry, demonstrating more bang for the buck, fueled nearly $45 billion into the state's economy. Construction was $41 billion.

Yet, there is no construction commissioner or manufacturing commissioner on the Florida Cabinet sitting alongside the state's chief financial officer and attorney general. Those three positions, along with the governor, are deemed the most important in the state.

Putnam said he expects the notion of removing the department as a Cabinet-level position will come up again, though he doesn't think it will be the "flash point" of debate it was 20 years ago. In the meantime, he says, he'll keep looking for ways to keep his agency relevant.

"The department's job is not to be a dinosaur," he said. "The department's job is to evolve with the industry."

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