soil and water
BEACON PHOTO/ELI WITEK EASY ELECTION — Dennis Mike Simpson, left, and James Brinton visit the Volusia County Elections Office June 17 to fill out paperwork required for their campaigns for seats on the Volusia Soil & Water Conservation District board. Both Simpson and Brinton — along with the board’s three other members — were automatically elected Friday, when no one qualified to run against any of the five candidates.

Candidates for seats on the Volusia Soil and Water Conservation District board scrambled to complete documents before the noon June 17 deadline, after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that changed the rules for the election.

When the deadline came and the dust had settled, each of the Soil & Water races had only one qualified candidate. Austin Spivey, James Brinton, Dennis Michael Simpson, Wendy Anderson and Kristine Cunningham all were elected automatically, because they were unopposed. Only Anderson was an incumbent; the other four are new to the board.

The new law put all five seats up for election (rather than just the odd-numbered seats) and imposed new restrictions on those wanting to run.

Senate Bill 1078, signed into law by DeSantis June 15, requires that all the seats on the 56 active Soil and Water Conservation District’s boards in the state be filled by election in 2022, and that candidates qualify under one of the following conditions:

  • Be actively engaged in, or retired after 10 years of being engaged in, agriculture
  • Be employed by an agricultural producer
  • Own, leases, or be actively employed on land classified as agricultural

That gave candidates roughly 36 hours to complete an “affirmation” form, or, in the case of Seats 2 and 4, file all of their documentation.

“I work in irrigation services across the state,” Dennis Mike Simpson said. “I was waiting for a part — I thought I wouldn’t make it.”

Simpson, who is running for Seat 3 on the countywide board, made it to the Elections Office in DeLand exactly 15 minutes before the noon deadline.

What is Soil & Water?

Once an influential and well-funded committee (first established by the U.S. Congress in 1935 in response to the Great Dust Bowl), the Volusia Soil & Water Conservation District board has generally been relegated to an advisory and educational role. The board is unfunded, and its elected board members are unpaid volunteers.

But since 2020, Volusia County’s Soil & Water Conservation District board has been chaired by Wendy Anderson, an environmental science professor at Stetson University (and regular contributor to The Beacon). Under her leadership, new members have sought to expand their outreach and education efforts.

“We don’t have money, authority, or responsibility. Our only job is to educate and advocate,” Anderson said. “The various supervisors across the state are working hard to build community gardens, to educate the next generation of farmers, to educate the current generation of farmers, to expand communities, and to expand ideas about what food production looks like.”

But while some boards have expanded their advocacy and educational role, legislators have pushed back.

The new law — and the new qualifications — is a watered-down version of the original bill, which would have abolished the relatively obscure and unfunded boards altogether. The bill was proposed by state Sen. Travis Hutson, a Republican representing the 7th District, which includes Flagler, St. Johns and northern Volusia County.

While candidates and the Elections Office anticipated that the bill would be signed into law, requiring Seats 2 and 4 to run, the requirement that candidates sign an affirmation that they met one of the three agriculture-related conditions caused some headaches and confusion.

Another provision of the bill would dissolve the board if it did not meet (or presumably could not, because it did not have enough members), adding new urgency to the race.

One candidate, Lynn Peterson, was out of state. With only 36 hours before the deadline, overnighting a signed form from Oregon to Florida would miss the deadline. Whether the signed form could be emailed was still up in the air, according to Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Lisa Lewis.

“I don’t know that we could take an electronic copy of it. But she was going to take the chance anyway, just in case we could,” Lewis said. As of 1 p.m. June 17, Lewis was still waiting on an answer from the state.

Peterson, who filed her paperwork May 12, did not qualify. Peterson said she emailed the required form; Lewis said she never received it.

What is agriculture?

What constitutes “agriculture” is a question that had candidates across the state hurriedly pulling up the exact definitions under state statutes.

The answer is far from clear.

While Simpson, who works in irrigation, mainly works on golf courses, he said, he also serves ferneries. He was inspired to run in part because of the amount of chemical spraying he sees in his work, he told The Beacon.

“I’ve been growing my own food for several years, and worked in greenhouses,” James Brinton said. “Currently, I grow my own food; I sell cuttings and distribute plants.”

Like at least two others, Brinton filled out his paperwork for Seat 2 on the final day of qualifying, June 17. He got it done roughly an hour before the deadline.

Incumbent Anderson oversees Stetson University’s Sustainable Food Systems program, teaches a class titled “Growing Food in Cities,” has co-authored manuals on growing food in Florida, and is an officer in her family’s business, an “international food and beverage brokerage firm that distributes agricultural products,” she said.

The somewhat unusual interpretations of what constitutes “actively engaged in agriculture,” actually coincide with some of the arguments made by environmentalists who encourage more local food production and closer relationships between those who produce food and those who consume it.

“The whole concept of what is food security, and what is food production, is shifting back. I like to say it’s shifting back, so what is old is new again,” Anderson said.

“People don’t have to drive around to get some of their food — they don’t need to produce all of their food, but to have at least something locally grown, that you yourself produced, and get that connection with nature,” Brinton said. “That’s one of my main interests.”

According to Florida state statute:

“Agriculture” means the science and art of production of plants and animals useful to humans, including to a variable extent the preparation of these products for human use and their disposal by marketing or otherwise, and includes aquaculture, horticulture, floriculture, viticulture, forestry, dairy, livestock, poultry, bees, and any and all forms of farm products and farm production. For the purposes of marketing and promotional activities, seafood shall also be included in this definition.”

Another statute section defines “farm product”:

“Farm product” means any plant, as defined in s. 581.011, or animal or insect useful to humans and includes, but is not limited to, any product derived therefrom.


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