Agriculture commissioner rewrites energy goals, school lunch menus

Adam Putnam oversees your food supply, energy security, consumer complaints and even school lunches in Florida.

The elected state commissioner of agriculture and consumer services previously served five terms in Congress as a Republican representing southCentral Florida’s citrus and cattle country.

I questioned Putnam about food, fuel and telemarketers. Excerpts from our interview:

Question: Is agriculture still relevant in Brevard County? It’s been a long time since I last saw a working citrus grove.

Putnam: Agriculture remains one of Florida’s strongest economic pillars. It’s a $100 billion industry and employs 1 million people in our state alone.

On the Space Coast, things have been a little tougher. Development pressure and disease have really impacted the fresh citrus market.

But you’re starting to see people replacing citrus with peaches. That was unheard of in Florida a decade ago, but the University of Florida has developed a variety that will grow in our warm weather.

Blueberries are taking off. And, to some degree, energy crops are replacing some of the grapefruit groves.

Q: You successfully lobbied the Legislature to adopt an energy policy this year. What’s the goal?

Putnam: Florida has to be smart about energy because, as a peninsula, whatever we consume, we have to produce.

Natural gas prices are at an all-time low. New discoveries in North America mean we’re more energy secure. But it only arrives in Florida through two pipelines that originate in the same place in Louisiana — Hurricane Alley. So we need some diversity in how we get natural gas.

And we need diversity of fuel sources. Nuclear makes a lot of sense — it’s clean and long-lasting. Clean coal has some potential.

On the motor-fuel side, if we can find a way to convert portions of our vehicle fleet — school buses, delivery trucks, things that start at the same place every morning and come back — that’s a logical next step away from gasoline toward compressed natural gas.

Q: Should government invest in developing certain types of energy technology?

Putnam: Mandates by government seldom result in the most technologically advanced gadget or device for the people. Incentives always work better.

And the Space Coast has so much human capital, manufacturing capacity and know-how. When people come up with the next big thing, we should reward that in the form of tax credits.

That’s a different approach than, say, Solyndra, where the government ahead of time said, “We think this has promise, we’re going to dump a bunch of money into it.”

We replace that bet with a reward for jobs created, energy actually produced.

Q: You’ve launched an effort to bring Florida growers and school districts together to make school lunches better. Explain.

Putnam: Every day during the school year, we provide 4 million servings to students. As taxpayers, we’re picking up half the tab for half of those servings through the federal lunch program.

Now, that can be tater tots and ketchup, and we can call that a vegetable. Or, it can be a more nutritious meal that develops lifelong healthy eating habits and results in lower health care costs decades later.

Florida grows things that are good for you, and it grows them during the winter months when kids are in school. So, beginning in the next school year, you’ll see more fresh fruits and vegetables on kids’ plates.

Q: How? Do you send government trucks out to pick up strawberries?

Putnam: In the iPhone age, we can facilitate the market just by providing information. In the case of strawberries, we got a call from growers, who said, “Hey, the market’s been flooded with imports, our prices are crashing, we’ve got warehouses full of berries.”

So, we sent an e-mail to buyers at the school districts. Within an hour, they were buying cases of fresh Tampa-area strawberries picked in the past two days. Within another two days, strawberries were on students’ plates in a five-county area.

We helped move a product that would have sat in warehouses. It sold at a lower rate than it would have, but high enough that the farmers recovered their costs. And the kids ultimately won.

We facilitate the marketplace by saying, “Hey, Indian River has sweet corn coming into market next week — adjust your menus.” Or, Palm Beach County has green beans starting in three weeks — adjust your menus.”

Q: Any news for consumers?

Putnam: We’ve eliminated the fee for getting onto the state’s Do-Not-Call list. We encourage anyone who’s tired of getting phone calls to log onto our website at and sign up.

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Author: Matt Reed
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