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Commissioner Putnam: Despite challenges, Florida fruits and vegetables are on the right track

by Chip Carter | November 10, 2011
Florida District 66 Rep. Ben Albritton, a citrus grower and former member of the Florida Citrus Commission, talks shop with the state’s new Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, a veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives, at the industry banquet at the annual Florida Citrus Conference in June in Bonita Springs, FL. (Photo by Chip Carter)

PALM BEACH, FL — After 10 years on Capitol Hill as one of the younger congressional representatives in history, Adam Putnam [R-Bartow] in January took the helm as Florida Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services after a landslide victory in last November’s general election.

Mr. Putnam’s family has deep roots in Florida agriculture as cattlemen and citrus growers. But at a very young age — he was just 21 when he was elected to the Florida legislature, where he served four years before heading to Washington, DC — the commissioner realized he could do more good for the industry in the halls of power than in the fields.

The Produce News caught up with Commissioner Putnam recently for a state-of-the-industry question-and-answer session.


THE PRODUCE NEWS: The produce industry has been selling itself business-to-business — B2B — for decades. Now growers are focusing on business-to-consumer — B2C — to capitalize on the growing interest in agriculture and where our food comes from. How do you get the word to people on the street and brand Florida produce as a whole?

ADAM PUTNAM: We start in a good place in that Florida produce does enjoy a very solid reputation, but I think for about a generation there was a loss of appreciation for food production in general.

TPN: How much of that had to do with perceptions of large, subsidized agriculture versus specialty crops, which is the category most Florida production falls in?

AP: The typical American thinks that all agriculture is heavily subsidized.

TPN: That farmers get paid to not grow stuff?

AP: Correct, which is not the case at all for a state like Florida, but you’re certainly fighting that perception. But I think it’s bigger than just that; people lost an appreciation for food in general. So this megatrend of an appreciation for food — the fact that there are multiple food-oriented networks on television, these superstar chefs — means we’re focused on fresh product and where it comes from. All of those things benefit Floridians because that’s what we grow, those fresh items are what we produce.

TPN: Does this back-to-local — the ‘locovore’ — movement signal a realization that we got too disconnected from where it all comes from?

AP: Yes, there’s definitely a realization that we became too disconnected from the land, and to varying degrees people are trying to reconnect.

TPN: Fresh, local produce is now a staple at Walmart.

AP: When you see that Walmart has gotten ahead of this, it’s recognition that this is now a broadly held view and a true shift in consumer preferences. There’s also a new appreciation for food and agriculture-oriented careers. You’re seeing people come back to the farm, back to the land, vertically integrate, build relationships with local restaurants and farmers markets, put things on Craigslist, set up web sites. It’s cool to be attached to the land again. And that, combined with difficulty finding jobs anywhere, is fueling a flow of young talent into agriculture that hasn’t been there in a long time.

TPN: Over the last three decades, people became more distrustful of big business, big government, ag got lumped into that and specialty crop ag as well. How does specialty crop agriculture separate itself from big agribusiness?

AP: Consumers in general are more cynical about everything they buy. They have access to way more information than their parents had. Some of it’s accurate, some of it’s not. But there’s a greater emphasis on everything — from the coffee they buy, to the car they drive, to the groceries they purchase — in terms of sustainability, environmental footprint, health effects. So the industry is actually very well-positioned to tell its story to a group of consumers who are more willing than ever to listen and be impressed by it. When you look at family citrus operations, family-run strawberry and blueberry farms, they’re all neat stories. So if people are making purchasing decisions based on the narrative, then we’ll be in great shape.

TPN: Over the past few decades we’ve seen the pace of life speed up. We realize we can’t control the world, but one thing we can control is what our families eat and where it comes from.

AP: That represents, as part of this larger shift, an enormous opportunity. We need to make sure it’s not a fleeting opportunity, we need to make sure that when the economy does recover and unemployment rates do fall and good stock market returns come back that people don’t lose interest in their food supply. You don’t want this shift to only be driven by a sense of despair about the condition of the world. You want it to be driven by a reconnection to the land. Clearly, frustration, pessimism, despair about global markets, failure of large institutions, a lot of that is driving this. In order to sustain it, it needs to be based on the good story agriculture has to tell and not just people feeling like, “The only thing in the world I can control is where my food comes from.”

TPN: There’s a global money crunch — the industry in this state has to make decisions everywhere. Do you fund research, do you fund marketing? Is there a happy balance?

AP: If the question is a zero-sum game between research and marketing, the proper investment for government is in research because its benefits are spread throughout all stakeholders and parties. Firms can either collectively market through their [commodity specific trade] associations or individually market their brand, but I view the role of government as being more oriented toward helping us deal with pests and disease pressures, using less water, being able to increase yields to benefit everyone.

TPN: Is that a way of saying Florida citrus, for instance, should not have to divert so much of its marketing budget to help fund research, as it has had to do the last three years?

AP: What it’s saying is that the industry determined that research was the most pressing issue and they’ve taken a hit in terms of market share as a result of that emphasis on research. But if that research weren’t being carried out we wouldn’t have anything to market.

TPN: How can the industry attract fresh young talent?

AP: It’s not an easy proposition. I think the associations have begun to do a good job of targeting young talent. You’re seeing a recognition of the graying of the industry by the associations and now they’re making a concerted effort to target these young people.

TPN: You’ve made mention in the past of this Norman Rockwell vision most Americans have of farmers and farming. But this is space-age technology.

AP: On the one hand, the positive, charming, quaint imagery of a Norman Rockwell farm continues to support a positive impression of agriculture. But it is an incomplete picture because it doesn’t recognize the modern technology, sophistication, education, expense and considerable risk involved in feeding the world. At the time that Norman Rockwell was painting these iconic images of the family farm, probably one-fourth of the population was still on the farm. If you want to return to that size and scale of agricultural operation, it means that a whole lot of people living in high-rises are going to have to get their fingernails dirty and I don’t think that trend is anywhere around the corner.