Adam Putnam is the public face of Florida agriculture and its signature crop of oranges, an industry trapped in a downward spiral of historic proportions.
Putnam is starting his eighth and final year as state agriculture commissioner, an elected Cabinet office that he hopes is his launch pad to becoming the state’s next governor.
Timing matters in politics. Putnam’s candidacy must gain critical momentum at a time when citrus is being hammered by the double whammy of disease and disaster. Its fiercely independent growers are desperate for financial help from the Legislature and Congress that so far isn’t forthcoming.
Ravaged by an insect that carries the devastating disease of greening, Florida’s citrus crop has fallen by 70 percent in two decades, and began long before Putnam took office.
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Then came Hurricane Irma in September, which left a trail of destruction weeks before harvest, killing trees, putting fruit pickers on the unemployment line, and driving up the cost of orange juice.
“The citrus industry is facing unprecedented challenges,” Putnam said in a Times/Herald interview. “We will live to face challenges again in the future. I’m not at all writing this industry’s obituary. The citrus industry is here to stay.”
Not everyone is convinced.
Critics say Putnam hasn’t done enough to rescue an iconic industry that’s synonymous with the Sunshine State.
“If it happens on your watch, it’s your problem. The citrus industry has declined on Adam’s watch,” says Jan Barrow, a business executive and president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Lakeland, a political club. “Florida’s orange growing farmers are losing ground and market share to Brazil. Adam fails to promote policies to protect hometown citrus growers by not advocating sensible trade requirements.”
Putnam counters that politicians can’t save citrus. Only scientists can.
As agriculture commissioner, Putnam did support Gov. Rick Scott’s creation of a post-Irma relief program of $25 million in loans for struggling citrus growers. But some loans are for less than $100,000.
“It was too little, too late,” Barrow said.
Agriculture is Putnam’s job, but Scott got credit for the citrus loan program. Putnam said that doesn’t bother him.
“This is a team effort,” he said. “I’m counting on the governor.”
Putnam, 43, is a fifth-generation Floridian whose family has operated orange groves in Polk County for generations and whose agency regulates the citrus industry. The boyish-looking Putnam was first elected to the state Legislature at 22 and has held public office continuously ever since.
What has he done?
He has gone to Capitol Hill with Gov. Rick Scott to lobby for financial relief for hurricane-ravaged farmers in Congress, where he served for a decade.
He asks the Florida Legislature for millions more money each year for research to seek a cure for citrus greening at the University of Florida, including $18 million next year.
But his budget wish list for next year includes more money for other priorities, such as $75 million to expand a rural and family lands conservation program, $17 million for pay raises for forestry firefighters and law enforcement officers and $11 million to replace aging firefighting equipment.
Putnam’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has 3,600 full-time employees.
The agency is responsible for inspecting fruits and vegetables, protecting Floridians against exotic pests, consumer scams and wildfires, issuing concealed weapons permits and managing a million acres of forest land and the statewide school lunch program.
Putnam filed a $1.9 billion budget proposal in September, before the full extent of Irma’s damage to the citrus industry was known.
“We will likely request additional funding,” Putnam wrote to the Legislature on Sept. 15.
Scott did not include most of those requests in the $87.4 billion spending plan he sent the Legislature in November, but lawmakers will make the final spending decisions.
J. M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a Republican strategist and lobbyist, said he doubted that most voters would blame Putnam personally for the citrus industry’s demise.
“I don’t blame Adam Putnam for greening,” said Stipanovich, who is not supporting Putnam’s bid for governor. “I just don’t think that it’s of great import to the average citizen, who lacks any knowledge about this.”
Putnam’s own messaging seems to reflect that view.
On social media and on the campaign trail, Putnam the candidate seldom if ever mentions the citrus industry.
When he spoke to Florida business leaders this week at a Chamber of Commerce event, he made a brief reference to the weather’s impact on citrus. He talked more about teaching job skills to middle-school students, rebuilding the middle class and “preparing for the next generation of technology.”
Citrus growers have known Putnam for years as a colleague. But as an aspiring governor of the third-largest state, he must work to broaden his appeal far beyond the confines of agriculture, and to become more than the little-known regulator whose name appears on gasoline pumps across the state.
Putnam’s campaign message is to invest more money in workforce training and vocational education and to attract more jobs to Florida’s rural counties, many of which are in worse economic shape now than before the Great Recession began a decade ago.
Putnam talks far more about guns than citrus or agriculture in general, for that matter.
On Twitter, Putnam cited his “New Year’s Resolution #1: Keep standing up for our Second Amendment rights.”
Putnam lit up social media last summer by labeling himself a “proud NRA sellout” and promoting an online petition to “stop CNN,” moves that brought criticism from fellow Republicans that he was pandering to gun rights advocates and Trump supporters.
But whether Putnam talks about citrus or not, the industry’s plight has drawn the attention of everyday Floridians.
Melvin Koshiol, 86, a Fort Myers retiree and a former 3M Corp. executive, faults Florida politicians, including Putnam, for supporting taxpayer subsidies for sugar growers that should be used to help citrus growers.
“They’ve got to put more money behind research,” said Koshiol, a registered independent, who said he voted for Trump and usually votes Republican. “My idea is, divert some of the money they’re giving to the sugar industry, because they do not need all the subsidies they’re getting.”
Four months ago, Hurricane Irma left a trail of destruction through Florida’s citrus belt that’s estimated to cost nearly $1 billion.
Action from Washington is viewed as most urgent because relief there is measured in the billions, not millions as it is in Tallahassee.
“Big disaster relief packages need to come from Washington, D.C.,” said Ellis Hunt Jr., who operates citrus groves in Lake Wales and is chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission.
Once considered the obvious frontrunner in the GOP primary for governor, Putnam now faces a serious challenge on his right flank from U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a U.S. Navy veteran and Fox News favorite who has support from wealthy national donors and a fresh endorsement from President Donald J. Trump, highly coveted assets in a Republican primary.
Another possible opponent poses a more immediate obstacle for Putnam because he’s the single most powerful figure in the Legislature: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. A Putnam critic, Corcoran is considering his own bid for the Republican nomination for governor.
Corcoran has no interest in helping Putnam score victories in the Capitol that would boost his prospects.
Asked if he could list Putnam’s legislative priorities, Corcoran said no, declining further comment on Putnam’s record.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com and follow @stevebousquet.
Adam Putnam’s five top budget priorities for 2018:
▪ Rural and family land protection: $75 million*
▪ Citrus research: $18 million
▪ Raises for firefighters, law enforcement: $11 million
▪ Forestry fire equipment replacement: $11 million
▪ Agriculture promotion: $5 million*
* Not in governor’s budget recommendations
Source: Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services