Okeechobee community encouraged to ‘speak up’ for agriculture

As Okeechobee community members gathered at the KOA Convention Center for the Farm City luncheon on Thursday, they reinforced the community’s support for agriculture.

“Okeechobee is agriculture,” said Kiwanis President Ken Kellar.

The highlight of the luncheon every year is the introduction of representatives from local 4-H and FFA clubs. They filed onto the stage to introduce themselves and tell the audience a little about their projects. Most of the young people were fearless and professional in front of the large crowd. Some forgot what they were going to say and were rescued by other club members. A few collapsed into giggles, inciting more laughter from the crowd. All received applause.

“These kids are the future of agriculture and the future of the community,” said guest speaker Okeechobee City Councilman Gary Ritter, Assistant Director of Government and Community Affairs for Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

He said agriculture is an important part of the Okeechobee community.

“We are family and friends and we have to stick together as such,” said Mr. Ritter, who worked for the South Florida Water Management District for 35 years before joining Farm Bureau, He added that while Okeechobee County is fortunate to have the help of leaders such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Senator Denise Grimsley, it is important for everyone to work together to protect the area’s rural heritage.

He spoke of the attacks that all of the communities around the lake have had to endure from coastal media and social media for the last several years.
Most recently, he said, an attack came from “devious, narcissistic, evil urban terrorists who would like nothing more than to bring our farms and our community down.

“We need to push back against this nonsense,” he said.

The coastal media lay the blame for all of Florida’s problems on agriculture, when the real issue is the growing human population, he continued.

Mr. Ritter recalled a meeting that he attended at which a young lady from Orlando got up to comment that the people and communities around Lake Okeechobee shouldn’t be living there.

He referred to one online group that regularly attacks lake area agriculture as “nothing more than self-serving, radical, militant thugs who get their self-satisfaction from how many thumbs up they can get on social media.

“We need to stick together,” Mr. Ritter said.

“We need to combat the misinformation on social media with science.

“We need to let people know we are farm proud,” he said.

Mr. Ritter spoke of those who have documented and taught others about local history and the agriculture heritage, referencing Judge Bill Hendry, Magi Cable, Betty Williamson and Roger McWaters. He also noted 4-H Extension Agent Debbie Clements has taught an army of young people about agriculture and about citizenship.

“Our agriculture family is extremely important to Okeechobee,” he said. “We support each other in good times and in trying times.”

Mr. Ritter said that while he worked for SFWMD he watched the agriculture community help develop Best Management Practices (BMPs) to limit the excess nutrient load into area waterways. The farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of the land, he continued. They have spent millions of dollars developing and implementing ways to clean water.

“EAA farmers have met or exceeded water quality standards for the past 25 years,” he said. They continue to implement additional BMPs.

“In spite of all of the progress already made, we still need to defend ourselves.”

“People tend to want to throw agriculture under the bus,” he said. “They want to blame agriculture for all of the environmental problems.”

He said those who support agriculture must combat misinformation on social media as well as the misinformation shared on other media. He said too often the coastal TV stations and news outlets such as TC Palm sensationalize stories to increase their online followers rather than factually report the news.

Social media was originally promoted to unite people, Mr. Ritter said. “Now it is being used to divide us.

“History tells us that agriculture in South Florida has been part of the landscape for a century and a half. Farmers and ranchers continue to be the best stewards of the land,” he said.

He said the misinformation spread online about agriculture threatens the livelihoods of those who live in the rural communities.

“We need not succumb to slogans,” he said. “There will always be groups that want you to react to their emotional propaganda. We should also be proud to speak up for agriculture, tell our story and support one another against those who want to take us down.”

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