Industry leaders applaud county's plan to hire agriculture manager
By Tom Harlan
Agriculture officials are lauding Miami-Dade County's decision to hire a manager to promote their industry but say the effectiveness of incentive plans to preserve land will depend on how farmers weigh the benefits.
County officials will hire an agriculture manager in a few months and plan to form programs that offer incentives to owners of agricultural land to sell and transfer development rights to preserve the county's $1 billion agricultural industry. The sector employs up to 22,000 and uses more than 80,000 acres.
Katie Edwards, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, said bureau officials are unsure how transfer of property development rights would affect the industry. Farmers may sell property rights to pay off debts, she said, but others might not want to rule out selling their land for other uses.
But bureau officials are excited about getting an experienced agricultural manager, she said, and hope the county increases funding so the manager can add a staff, research issues and attend meetings to protect the industry.
Farmers could use the contact in the county to help them comply with regulations, said Paul DiMare of tomato producer DiMare Co.
A county agricultural advocate could work with state and county officials, Ms. Edwards said, to reduce conflicting laws on topics such as water or pesticide use.
Rules and regulations have been conflicting, burdensome or outdated, said Subrata Basu, the county's assistant director for planning, and the manager would help solve those issues.
"Two issues of water rise can destroy a crop," he said, adding that the manager would work with the Department of the Interior on flooding issues and be an advocate for the South Dade economy. "The thought was that we need to have someone, a constant face to present the South Dade interest at these negotiations."
"I'd say the position is long overdue," Mr. DiMare said, adding that agriculture has been a mainstay of the county for 50 years. "I feel like they woke up and found out about a $7 billion state industry. Where have they been?"
County lawmakers have ignored South Dade farmers for decades, Mr. DiMare said, because farmers are independent, live far south of downtown Miami and are not considered a large industry group.
But the industry is the second-largest in the state, he said, and an agricultural manager is needed to represent county farmers in infrastructure and transportation issues.
A county representative would help maintain the agricultural industry as an economic engine, said Stephen Gran, Hillsborough County's agricultural development manager, by helping farmers market, find cash crops and eliminate problems dealing with county officials.
"I provide farmers with a single point and contact that can answer any of the questions they might have dealing with government or county regulations," he said. "I try to decrease their frustration."
"The idea is that we will have someone with some authority and responsibility to get departments together and resolve issues," Mr. Basu said. "Obviously, you can't expect one person to do too much. At some point, we'll have to figure out what their priorities are, but it's a good start. "
The hiring of a manager will be part of a plan to preserve the community, Mr. Basu said.
County officials are working on an ordinance that would allow a private property owner to be compensated for transferring development rights.
And the county is looking at purchasing development rights from agricultural land owners using funds set aside to extinguish non-agricultural uses of land.
Property owners would continue to live and work on the land, Mr. Basu said, but negotiate with the county how they plan to use the land.
The concepts are county efforts to prevent urban sprawl into farmland and the Everglades, she said. The county can't force growers to give up rights, she said. She said the bureau has not taken a stand on the issue because it includes economic incentives that may benefit some farmers.
"Ultimately, the decision has to be left to the individual grower," she said, adding that the concept has been successful in Oregon and Pennsylvania but has not been applied to Miami-Dade County.
Farmers will explore every possibility before deciding whether to sell their land, she said, but they have to consider that their plans might change.
Families have manned South Dade farms for decades, Mr. DiMare said, and have built up debts through crop freezes and insect problems. An opportunity to sell land to a developer for millions after a lifetime of farming, he said, is a right many farmers are not going to sell.
"As farmers, we'd like to make a good living at our business," he said. "But that's getting tougher. And development is going to happen. Eventually, like most parts of the US, farmers are going to sell land and get out."