MW: How to keep the land in agriculture? The farmer thinks that the land was your bank, that’s your retirement fund.
KE: I’d rather see us focus, before we start looking out, start looking in and focus more on reinvestment. Even in the city of Homestead there are things that we can be doing for energized growth. I think, you take the lazy approach and say Ok you know what, I don’t like what I drew on that piece of paper, scratch, give me a new one. That’s the mentality. It’s so much easier.
MW: So you’re saying the urban sprawl is not economically viable any more?
KE: I don’t think it ever was. I don’t think it ever was. I don’t think it makes sense to build up out of there. I don’t think we should vilify farmers for the predicament that they’re in. I don’t think that they created it That’s the plot in life God gave them, is they’ve got land that has to be planted, and they’ve got to be able to take out money to sell their crops, to buy their seed, their inputs, their fuel at the beginning of the season, and what do they do, they go to the bank. Pre-NAFTA they were making money and they didn’t have these issues. And all of sudden, it’s like everything happened. We convert row crop land to nurseries, and we end up that there are 1200 nurseries in Miami-Dade County, that’s too many. And then what happens? We’ve got water restrictions and people aren’t buying plants. And then we have a recession and housing market, there’s nothing to landscape. People would rather pay off bills rather than landscape or re-sod their homes. Most of the nurseries are on small parcels. They can’t put a subdivision in there. So what do the growers do? They are abandoning, they’re walking away from their properties saying I can’t make it, sorry. That’s the problem. Drive around Redland and see how many nurseries there are with for sale signs up, vacant ground covering those lands there. They can’t afford to maintain them. That’s the problem I’ve encountered.
MW: How does Farm Bureau speak for the small guy? Or is Farm Bureau only for the big guys?
KE: I’ve got quite a lot of small growers [as members]. A lot of these guys are new farmers, some are generational growers, but some are completely new to the business. We’re just trying to find ways trying to make everyone happy, because in my industry the people that I represent are so diverse, ethnically, gender-wise, age, income and what they grow. You’re going to have some issues that collectively we all agree on, but everyone needs a different type of help and assistance. What my big farmers need help with are immigration issues, so most of their issues are federal. With the smaller farmers need mostly are county, they want help with their certificate of occupancy at farmers markets, they want help with ag assessment, they want help marketing, they want help making inroads talking with chefs.
MW: In other communities you have farmers communicating with chefs. Food writers are writing about eating local food. Would be great if more restaurants sourced locally.
KE: Absolutely! You help promote, you do incentives, you provide more awareness and recognition like for programs like Redland Raised. And the farmers have the chance to be entrepreneurs, to adapt and to be creative. Because if we’re going to be adaptive in the industry and keep looking for new and emerging markets, we can’t have the state, or most oftentimes the county saying, no you can’t do this. With the winery for example, I helped Peter Schnebly with the winery ordinance. Originally, that was illegal. And all the residents in the Redland were fighting against it saying it will be disruptive, it’s not going to do anything for us, and now they all love it. And that was the whole thing, trying to find a way to get creative. You have to have common sense. You have to give growers enough flexibility to be able to be entrepreneurs, to be creative and to stay in business.
MW: What issues come up at fundraisers?
KE: Each population has its issues. The issues in Sweetwater aren’t the same as the issues in Homestead or the Redland. And you talk and you learn. Part of what I do is try to bring people together, find commonalities, and then figure, where we can compromise and where can we get stuff done.
One of the biggest issues in West Kendall is dealing with the homeowners associations. With the huge rate of foreclosures and trying to strike a balance between the rights of the condo association, the rights of the homeowner, the rights of the bank that actually has title when someone has to walk away from the mortgage. How do you look at it as a human being, but what does the law say? You can’t keep asking private citizens to bear more of the brunt of the economic crisis when it comes to the HOAs and the foreclosures.
The other issue that’s important to me is property tax reform. It’s very expensive to be a homeowner in Miami-Dade County. When I began doing comparisons online, looking at the Miami-Dade Property Appraisers website, I saw the complete inequities in what we’re paying but we’re all sharing the same services. Let’s say I pay 2 thousand dollars a year in property taxes, my neighbor next door pays less because they bought their home in 1998, that to me is not fair. We’ve got to figure out something holistically that provides people an opportunity to share in government services that’s not based on some fictitious value, which is to me all these fair market values are, it’s just whatever the market is. I’m willing to put it out there and tell people we’ve got to have a serious conversation on how to fix this and make it at least equitable and fair for all of Floridians.
When I come back from Tallahassee I’m still going to go in to the Royal Palm Diner, and I’m still gonna have to face these people who are going to grill me and say, why did you sell out, why did you do this? I want to be able to still be Katie and still be a member of this community and have my name in good standing. I don’t understand how anybody could ever lose sight of the fact that they are going up there not for themselves but for other people. And these people, they’re giving you their vote, which is the most powerful thing they could ever give you. If someone says, I can’t give you a donation, I say that’s fine, what I really need is your vote. The money is great but it can only go so far, though. When people come to you and they say, when you get elected I want you to help me work on these projects, I’m like, absolutely. You have to give them an open door, you have to be accessible.