This week, Florida Governor Rick Scott and his Cabinet approved a conservation easement on more than 200 acres in Putnam County. That land belongs to one family who’s been farming there for decades.
Mr. Smith go to Tallahassee
It’s Tuesday morning, and Jared Smith waits patiently to address Governor Scott and the Cabinet. Jared is speaking on behalf of his grandparents, Wayne and Patsy Smith, who are selling a conservation easement on 238.45 acres in Hastings.
“It’s just another day in the office of a farmer, I reckon,” Smith said.
The development rights are purchased through Florida’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, and the transaction requires the Cabinet’s approval. Jared is a student at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia, and ironically, he’s missing his American Government and Public Speaking classes to be here at the Capitol.
“Mr. Governor, members of the Cabinet. Thank you for allowing me to come here,” Smith said.
Jared Smith says that when he finishes college he’ll return to Hastings to farm with his family.
“I am the sixth generation on our farm. I love agriculture. Agriculture — it’s been my entire life,” he said.
Agriculture is Florida’s second largest industry and provides more than 2 million jobs. But from 1982 to 2010, Florida lost an estimated 95,000 acres of rural land per year to development. The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program was established in 2001 to slow this rising tide of development, while keeping agriculture land on the tax rolls and protecting Florida’s farming families.
Jim Karels is Director of the Florida Forest Service, the department that oversees Rural and Family Lands. He says that the Smiths’ farm is a good fit for the program.
“They’ve been in this business for a long time. They want to stay in this business,” Karels said. “That’s very important in this program is that we want it to continue to stay in agriculture.”
Karels notes that there’s an important ecological piece to this program. Farmers’ stewardship of rural lands directly impacts things like water resources and wildlife habitat.
“It’s a conservation program too. It’s geared to protect the water and protect the land,” Karels said.
He said, “We look for those agricultural interests — whether it be ranching, whether it be row crops, whether it be forestry — that do very well in conserving and protecting our green space.”
Back on the farm
Wayne Smith is taking me on a tour of his farm.
“We’re in Cracker Swamp, in case anybody wants to know. It’s wet here,” he said.
Hastings has a robust agricultural history dating back to the late 1800s. Railroad magnate Henry Flagler established many local farms to provide fresh produce to his elite hotels and northern markets.
But, Wayne Smith says, the family farms that once populated this area are waning.
“There’s hardly any left. You’re looking at an area that had, when I graduated from college, about 270 potato growers,” he said. “And we’re down to twenty-five, thirty at the most.”
The Smiths’ farming tenure in Hastings is a lesson in adaptability. Where cabbage and potato crops were once the standby, Wayne has had to diversify to stay afloat.
Threatened by developers
Area development has also become a very real threat for Hastings’ farmers. In fact, the Smith land just approved for conservation was once slated for a 10,000 home subdivision called Mariposa. The developer wanted to put a highway through Smiths’ land and told him, “line up with us or we will run over you.”
Wayne Smith said, “I asked him — ‘You’re talking about coming through my farm — my family’s farm. We all live here. This is home to us.’”
“He said, ‘We’ll make you enough money you can go somewhere and buy you a whole bunch more land.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand. This is home,’” Wayne Smith said.
A total of 8,765 acres are protected from development under the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.