New Florida Ag Commissioner Headlines Farm City Luncheon

Farm City attendees got to hear newly elected Florida Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services Wilton Simpson give the keynote address — his first event since being elected on Nov. 8.

By Melanie Kopacz

It was a day of gratitude and coming together for both rural and urban communities at the annual Farm City Luncheon held at the South Florida Fairgrounds Expo Center on Wednesday, Nov. 16.

The Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Palm Beach County and the Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau, hosted more than 300 state and community leaders to celebrate the positive relationships between farm families and city residents, as well as goals for the conservation of natural resources, as part of a statewide Farm-City Week.

It’s a tradition that takes place just before Thanksgiving, allowing Florida Farm Bureau members to celebrate their harvest by donating food, money and time to help those in need, and for those farmers to be recognized for their hard work.

“We hold this Farm City event every year so we can highlight our agricultural community,” said Mary Lou Bedford, CEO of the Central Palm Beach County Chamber. “Not only are you great supporters economically to the state and the county, but you do so much. You provide nutritious food for all of us. You support the community, and we truly appreciate all of you.”

She also noted the inherent difficulties with the agricultural industry.

“What we really admire is your tenacity,” Bedford said. “Despite what Mother Nature puts in your way, you just keep going, you support one another, and you support all of us — and we’re thankful for that.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture & Consumer Services-Elect Wilton Simpson was the keynote speaker. He expressed his gratitude for his new position, marking this as his first event in his new role, after serving for the past two years as the president of the Florida Senate.

“It’s an honor to be here around so many agriculture producers in one of the biggest ag-producing counties in the state,” Simpson said.

Simpson, a lifelong Floridian, grew up on a chicken farm. He currently farms one million chickens in Pasco County, which produces two million dozen eggs a month. He touched on his accomplishments in the Florida Senate and what he foresees in Florida’s future, describing agriculture on the scale of national security.

“I’ve been farming my entire life,” Simpson said. “We’re always working behind the scenes. Agriculture doesn’t need to survive in this state. We need to thrive in this state.”

Michelle McGovern of Baptist Health South Florida, the event’s presenting sponsor, commended the Central Palm Beach County Chamber for its critical partnerships with the agricultural community.

“We at Baptist feel a strong connection to our agricultural friends, partially because Bethesda West would not be possible without the generosity of our many farming families,” McGovern said. “But also because we believe that making fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables a part of your everyday life helps to keep you and your family healthy, and hopefully away from our emergency rooms. That’s why even at our hospital in Homestead, we have a farm right on our campus.”

Palm Beach County leads the state in production of rice, lettuce, radishes and more. Nearly 40 percent of the county’s land mass is dedicated to agriculture, leading the nation in the production of sugar cane, sweet corn and bell peppers.

The Farm Bureau’s goal is to educate the community about all the seasonal fruits and vegetables grown locally.

“I ask you to continue to look for the ‘Fresh from Florida’ label on all your fruits and vegetables at your local grocery store,” said Keith Wedgworth, president of the Western Palm Beach County Farm Bureau and a fourth-generation farmer.

The crowd gave a round of applause to all the farmers in the audience, as well as the Future Farmers of America, with high school students and FFA leaders from Palm Beach County’s Glades Central High School, Jupiter High School and Glades Day School, whose student officers talked about the importance of their programs.

“We have a shop where we can learn to build and weld. We have a garden. Each grade has a different kind of class,” explained Peyton Pelham, a senior and president of the Glades Day FFA chapter. “My senior class is in agricultural communications to spread the word about what we’re doing.”

Dr. Charlene Ford, principal of the West Technical Education Center in Belle Glade, was on hand with adult students and graduates of their commercial driver’s license (CDL) program. The school’s student-driven semi-truck was on display at the Expo Center parking lot. Its curriculum includes two high school programs in construction and mechatronics, as well as a number of adult classes and certifications.

“Training classes are essential to keep our economy afloat, whether you’re a high school student debating where you’re going to college immediately after graduation or work immediately after — or an adult transitioning careers,” Ford said. “Without skilled workers, society would come to a halt. It’s great work. You can make a great living and pass these skills down generationally.”

Following the luncheon, each attendee was given a complimentary bag of locally grown produce as part of the Farm Bureau’s tradition of sharing its abundant harvest. Students from the three FFA chapters helped pass out brown bags filled with lettuce, radishes, corn, green beans, rice and sugar from event sponsors for all to share and enjoy.