By Kevin Doyle
Consumer Energy Alliance-Florida
When we look at the modern skyline and suburban development of so many Florida cities, it’s easy to forget that ours is also a substantially agricultural state. Agriculture plays an essential role in Florida’s vital energy future, and it is clearly time that its impact be factored into the development of long-term energy policies at both the state and national levels.
Everyone recognizes the importance of tourism to Florida’s economy, but many overlook that agriculture is a $100 billion industry here. With 25 to 30 percent of agricultural production costs tied directly to energy, and agricultural production so intertwined with our existence, we ignore this sector at our own peril.
Agriculture in Florida is not a mere relic of yesteryear – it’s as technologically advanced as any other industry. Thanks to innovation, our state is in the top one-third of the nation in net farm income, even though so much of our land is occupied by everything from cities and suburbs to retirement communities, theme parks and even golf courses.
To succeed over the long haul, farmers must make decisions for 20 years down the road. Unfortunately, the absence of a comprehensive national energy policy continues to handicap their ability to do proper long-range planning.
The Consumer Energy Alliance strongly believes we need an all-of-the-above energy policy, one that relies on all types of energy sources – not just oil and gas, but also solar, wind, nuclear and others. For this reason, we believe agriculture must be included in any plans. This was a key topic of discussion at a recent Ag-Energy Summit held in Atlanta by our sister organization, the Southeast Energy Alliance.
Florida has some 47,500 farms ranging from small family operations to large commercial enterprises. The average farm size in Florida is almost 200 acres, and operations this size cannot run on human power alone. They rely on electricity for everything from irrigation pumps to lighting and even air circulation fans in chicken houses – and that doesn’t factor in the fuel for tractors and other essential equipment, or the energy used to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides.
In 2011, Florida’s agricultural sector purchased $274.5 million worth of petroleum fuel and oils and another $97.9 million worth of electricity. This is not, if you’ll excuse the expression, just chicken feed. Every dollar Florida farmers spend on production translates directly into the food prices we all pay, as well as Florida agriculture’s ability to continue employing three-quarters of a million people. Higher prices on the agricultural products we export also make us less competitive in the global market.
The stakes are huge. Clearly, federal and state energy policy is about more than just the price we pay to put gasoline in our cars.
We must also remember that agriculture is a producer of energy, though on a limited basis, from methane to bio-fuels to wind. Our state has been a leader in trying to find new crops that can be used to produce energy without competing with the food supply for people and livestock. We are also beginning to tap the potential of biomass – for example, a facility nearing completion will use advanced combustion technology to efficiently convert forest products into energy for use by residents of Gainesville. Even on smaller farms, solar offers an abundant potential source of power for livestock watering, electric fencing and lighting.
Florida has been an agricultural state throughout its modern history, and energy supply has become an increasingly important factor in farm production. For all of us, Florida and the nation must have a coherent energy policy that takes into account all aspects of life in our state – including our essential agriculture sector.
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Kevin Doyle is executive director of the Consumer Energy Alliance-Florida, the state affiliate of a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to improve consumer understanding of America’s energy security. Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) brings together consumers, producers and manufacturers to engage in a meaningful dialogue about America’s energy future. Our mission is to help ensure stable prices for consumers and energy security. We believe energy development is something that touches everyone in our nation, and thus it is necessary for all consumers to actively engage in the conversation about how we develop and diversify our energy resources and energy’s importance to the economy. CEA promotes a thoughtful dialogue to help produce our abundant energy supply , and balance our energy needs with our nation’s environmental and conservation goals.