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Drones, Drips And Dems: Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried Takes Her Own Path In Israel

Jeffrey Schweers
Pool / Florida Society of News Editors
Members of the Florida Cabinet- Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, CFO Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody at Tel Aviv University.

TEL AVIV – Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried – the state’s highest ranked Democrat and first Jewish woman on the Cabinet – arrived in Israel several days ahead of Gov. Ron DeSantis and his entourage of nearly 100 legislators, lobbyists, business people and academics.

She wanted to conduct her own fact-finding mission to see what she could learn that could benefit Florida farmers. She said Israel is basically situated in a desert but has been able to create “survivorship” by emphasizing agricultural technology.

“We would be fools not to be here and bring that technology back to the United States,” she said. “The governor understands the same thing and while we were on different campaign tracks, we both made the same promises to our citizens.”

The only Democrat to win statewide office in the 2018 midterm elections, Fried said one of the reasons she chose to blaze her own path was to show “there are great supporters of Israel on both sides of the aisle.”

“When I started to see recently there was a partisan divide, I felt as the leading Democrat in the state of Florida as a swing state, as one of the largest Jewish populations in our state, it was my obligation to stand up and say ‘We are here. I am supporting Israel. I am supporting the American-Israeli relationship,’ ” she said. “The support of the state of Israel is not something we should be divided on D or R. This has always been a nonpartisan issue.”

The Florida Society of News Editors spent 15 minutes with her on the last official day of her trade mission to see what she learned. You can read some of her answers or watch a video of the interview below. 

Ag Tech: Robotic precision for better living

“I visited the Volcani research institution, the leading technology and research for all the agriculture of Israel, from citrus greening to hydroponics to different ways to preserve and protect the water supply.

I also visited Growponics, where everything is completely done by water. They test the water throughout the day and don’t even have to be on site. The monitor can be in Israel and the companies and grow houses can be in Florida. They know exactly what type of nutrients to put in, and if there is too much they can take it out.

They also have a robot that goes through the entire top of the greenhouse that monitors throughout the entire day to make sure there are no clogs in the water supply. If there is a disease that is detected on one of the leaves, it can continue to monitor it to see if the disease is spreading or if it’s just on one plant.”

Medical Marijuana: Breaking it down to a molecular level

“We have met with one of the leading growers and manufacturers and producers here. They have been given authorization from the FDA to do a lot of testing here… They are testing prototypes.

One of the findings is that cannabis is made of 120-plus molecules. The FDA is used to regulating one molecule but they don’t even know what to do with this. A doctor at Volcani has separated out the molecules and has been able to create formulations – if you take this molecule with another molecule that might be great resource for ALS – genetic manipulation, taking apart the molecules in the plant and putting together formulations. The government is pushing on this. They’ve been researching medical marijuana for twenty years and we can’t even start because it is illegal in the US.”

Drones: Flying fruit pickers and monitors

“We saw one company that is using drone technology to harvest plants… flying instruments that can go over and pick the fruit, take it from a basket and drop it in a larger basket. It is still a startup, they still have technological issues to work through, but we were able to see an exhibit. We saw another company that is using it more for monitoring. They can tell that this plant needs more water, this plant needs less, and are able to go through and take phototypes so they’re not overwatering and fertilizing a plant and are able to be more precise in and not overusing resources.”

Women in agriculture: Dynamic startups looking for partnerships

“I finished a roundtable with 25 women starting agriculture technology companies. They are doing everything from citrus greening to cannabis to drip irrigation to other water conservation, greenhouses, detecting of environmental concerns, soil conditions. All startups, all dynamic, looking for partnerships in Florida to take some of that technology to the state. That is my exact goal to take technology and research they are doing here and partner them with our farmers and ranchers.”

Water: ‘Drip technology is the wave’

“We’ve seen at least two companies, one of the ones started up by women. The drip technology is the wave. Drip irrigation technology has been around for decades but the problem is that it is cost prohibitive for smaller farmers. What they’ve done is created a different valve system that makes the same type of drip technology but that is not cost prohibitive. Another company we’ve seen is how to capture the water in the system and clean it and recycle it. Even the hydroponics systems that we saw, for five years they will never have to add the water or clean the water because they can recycle the water in the actual program itself. Another company is creating water out of air.”

Citrus Greening: A cure in sight?

A couple companies that we’ve already seen, one has shown early detection. You don’t have to wait two, three years to see the yield from a tree to detect greening. They may be able to detect it within six months of it seeping in the ground. Another company thinks they have a cure for it, but they don’t have trees to sample it on. That’s what my goal would be (to bring them to Florida).”

Jeffrey Schweers is accompanying Gov. Ron DeSantis and his 90-plus member delegation on his Israeli business development mission this week as a pool reporter for the Florida Society of News Editors. Schweers will provide regular reports and updates from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for Florida’s newspapers. Follow him on Twitter for updates @jeffschweers. Schweers, a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, can be reached at jschweers@tallahassee.com

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