Title:A 30-Year History of Florida Agriculture: The Doyle Conner Years
“With the rapid growth Florida is experiencing, we must work diligently to preserve the agricultural way of life before it’s lost.”
When John F. Kennedy became president, John Glenn orbited earth, and Elvis gyrated on stage, Doyle Conner began his tenure as Commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Florida agriculture and Conner marched hand in hand. From January 3, 1961, to January 8, 1991. In so many ways, Florida agriculture and Doyle Conner became synonymous during those 30-plus years.
For three decades, his innovations, successes, and popularity allowed him by the will of the people to serve as Commissioner of Agriculture. His 30-year tenure in the office spanned a unique time of discovery, growth and challenge, in America, Florida and agriculture.
While Conner served not only did President Kennedy occupy the White House, so did presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.
Not only did John Glenn orbit the earth but Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon and satellites, space shuttles and space stations became commonplace.
In Florida from 1960 to 1990 we grew and grew and grew some more. More people visited the state and more people moved to the state. Tourists became residents, while the crackers and conks looked on them.
And during that time Florida’s population climbed from fewer than 5 million in 1960 to almost 13 million in 1990. The state’s population ranked 10th in the nation in 1960, rose to fourth by 1990.
No state grew faster than Florida during those years. These were the years of Governor’s Bryant, Burns, Kirk, Askew, Graham, Mixon and Martinez. These were the years of Doyle Conner.
As dean of the Florida Cabinet, Conner served during the administrations of seven Florida governors. He remained the stabilizing force of the Florida Cabinet.
Governor Farris Bryant, 1961-1965:
“He was a tremendous help in building the Turnpike. You wouldn’t know today what a battle that was. But it was a tremendous battle. You’d be amazed if I rolled off the names of the people that fought it and the reasons for which they fought it. But he never wavered.”
“And we could set there in ‘61 and look back at the, say the freshman class in high school, the numbers of them following the World War II, these were the babies, the world war babies, and they were coming up like a bunch of locust, I mean there were millions of them. We had no hope of accommodating them.”
“So we purposed, and the Cabinet and Doyle were strongly in favor of it, passing a bond issue. That bond issue has now produced more than a billion dollars. And that billion dollars is what has built the junior colleges and the senior universities of the state. Yeah it’s still building them.”
During the Conner administration, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services became the largest in the United States.
Florida’s diversity in agriculture ranked second only to California. Florida agriculture ranked 20th in the nation in total value of crop and livestock sales in 1960. It reached eighth in 1990.
Cash receipts went from $869 million in 1960 to $6.21 billion before 1990.
Conner could be called Florida agriculture’s regulator. But most people saw him as Florida agriculture’s best promoter and finest friend.
Alfred A. McKethan, Chairman of the Board, Sun Bank and Trust Company:
“ He grew up in that field, that was his ambition to grow and develop agriculture. And I felt sure that’s what he would do and that’s what he did.”
“He became, I think the finest commissioner of agriculture in the United States. And he became a wonderful, wonderful individual to be part of Florida government, all these years as a member of the Cabinet. He was always a sound, safe executive.”
“Well I’m going to show how much I think of him, in this way. All my boys were girls, but if I’d had a son, I wish he could have been just like Doyle Conner is.”
He believed the best came from Florida and he wanted to market that message.
His programs in food safety assured quality. When crops and animals needed protecting, Conner led the way with eradication programs.
And as methods in technology changed, Conner introduced the new without discarding the values of the old. He boldly protected the driving spirit of the Florida agriculturalist.
He told the world of the back bone and brain power, ingenuity and initiative found among the Floridians who made their living off the land. Improving the status of produce farmers and cattle ranchers was a priority with Conner.
Leroy Baldwin, President FIATC:
“Well by the fact that Doyle is a producer and was raised on a farm in Palatka, excuse me in Starke, I think that’s a real key to his being so successful in Tallahassee.”
“He understands the needs of agriculture in Florida and by having practical experience with the production end of it before he became Commissioner of Agriculture, it made him much more qualified to help all of agriculture anytime that we had any needs.”
“Many times he was able to head off a crisis before it ever took effect by being far sighted enough and enough production oriented to realize what was fixing to happen.”
Throughout his administration he understood the challenge of trying to survive down on the farm while competing in foreign and domestic markets.
As Commissioner he maintained a consistent and successful emphasis on marketing Florida products.
“My number one commitment when I came into office, was to do the best job of marketing, anywhere in the United States. We have done a good job in marketing but I’m not at all happy. I would like to see a more effective marketing program. We’re updating some of our market facilities now, but in the area of technical marketing is where I hope we can make some progress in the near future. We want to all do the job that the people of Florida hired us to do”.
He introduced the harvesting festival tours, bringing the nations supermarket managers and buyers to the fields and groves of Florida, showing them the quality of the season’s crops.
Richard Sanborn, Seaboard System Railroad President:
“The idea of bringing the people from the northeast who are involved in this business down to Florida to see the full range of Florida agriculture, is good for the state and is good for the railroad and it’s good for everybody really.”
“I commend the Commissioner on doing this. I think it was a wonderful idea and we’re glad to be part of it, are happy to be part of it.”
Marketing included domestic programs promoting Florida products through supermarkets and direct sales by farmers through local farmers markets.
Conner’s innovation in marketing Florida products was evident in 1964. At that time he developed a program known as SunFlavor to distinguish state agricultural products.
The expanse of marketing took Florida agriculture to the world, through trade missions to 63 countries. The Commissioner and agricultural leaders visited the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain and Belgium.
By special invitation, he led one of the first trade mission to the People’s Republic of China, which included stops in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Hawaii.
To spur trade with Latin America, the Florida International Agricultural Trade Council was developed. Working closely with the department’s Division of Marketing, its annual international trade show became a major success.
“His whole outlook has not only been to benefit the Florida agriculture producers, but to also help to strengthen the agriculture economy of all of these countries.”
“I don’t know of a county in Central or South America or the Caribbean that the Commissioner couldn’t probably get elected president without a bit of trouble, if he had any desire for any further political office, that’s how well respected he is.”
In the early 1980s Doyle Conner was awarded the USDA Superior Service Award.
And for his efforts at home and abroad the commissioner received the Certificate of Merit from the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. He was the first non-member to receive the award for expanding trade.
The importance of Conner’s work in international trade and marketing was further acknowledged when Venezuela awarded him its highest honor. The Order of Francisco de Miranda for his efforts to increase trade between Florida and Venezuela.
Throughout his marketing strategies, Conner stressed the value-added concept. In 1990 the emphasis on marketing continued as the legislature appropriated $700,000 to promote the identity of Florida commodities.
Eradicating dangerous pests and diseases has been a top priority of Conner’s during his 30 years as commissioner of agriculture.
“This department’s long-lived philosophy is pest and disease eradication is always better and cheaper than the option of living with the given disease.”
Between 1961 and 1991 under Conner’s direction the department fought a “who’s who” list of problems.
Screw worm, giant African snail, the Mediterranean Fruit Fly, cattle fever ticks, varroa mites, Africanized honey bees, strangler vine, Caribbean fruit fly, black parlatoria scale, and the citrus black fly.
Also Newcastle disease, citrus canker, sugarcane smut, swamp fever, hog cholera and southern corn blight were on the list.
The use of biological controls such as predatory insects to eliminate destructive pests began with Conner’s advocacy.
As an example, Florida confronted screw worm by releasing sterile male flies.
Dr. Edward F. Knipling, Retired, USDA:
“but the people that really responded most were the livestock growers in Florida. They’d heard about this and this was a new technique that we said might be used to eradicate the screw worm in the southeast. And boy they became interested right away.”
“Well the publicity got out a little bit in Florida hearing they were going to run an eradication test in Florida, to see whether it would work in Florida.”
“So I don’t know in detail what the percentage was, but there was an agreement eventually that the state of Florida would contribute so much, livestock people would contribute so much, and then the USDA or the congress would contribute so much, I don’t know the exact distribution.”
“Anyway within about a year there weren’t any more screw worm cases reported.”
The research funding for the screw worm eradication program was spearheaded by Conner when he served as a State Representative and Speaker of the House in the 1950s.
Other battles as Commissioner included the giant African snail.
These destructive land snails were detected in North Miami in 1969, however just six years later the giant African snail was declared eradicated by the USDA. This represents the only eradication of a snail anywhere in the world.
Decisions to eradicate plant and animal pests were sometimes politically unpopular.
In September of 1984 a discovery of a twig and leaf spot disease in Polk Country was reported. The disease was identified as the historically dreaded citrus canker.
The only way known to eliminate the causative agent was burning of infested trees. To deal with the crises Conner established Citrus Canker scientific and technical council advisory groups.
Ben Hill Griffin III:
“I have always been particularly proud and impressed with the team of professionals that Doyle brought together, to address the very scary problem of citrus canker. Doyle amassed the world’s greatest experts in seeking direction as to how to handle this crisis.”
“Doyle has always in protecting our food supply and protecting the industry, moved with the advice of those which were experts in the field, to assure that our industry was secure in dealing with this very important crisis.”
Mallory E. Horne, General Counsel FDACS:
“In that case in 1984, 100 percent of the international scientists who viewed that problem with the citrus disease, 100 percent of them told him it was their opinion that it was citrus canker, it would destroy the citrus industry and he must do one thing that’s eradicate.”
“Not only 100 percent of the scientists but 100 percent of the federal authorities who had jurisdiction as well, insisted that if he did not do that, that no Florida fruit would be transported anywhere in the world other than Florida.”
“He took all of that into consideration and made a decision based on good advice to him. That’s been the hallmark of his decision.”
“I think since joining him I have found a far deeper Doyle Conner than I ever imagined to exist.”
“The irony is after he had been characterized that phony way by the media, universally the scientists who were experts in that field repudiated Dr. Gabriel, in saying that the shortcuts he took in his scientific discovery were not acceptable.
“So he’d been completely vindicated in every arena, and his action has been deemed to be prudent.”
But wanting the growers to be compensated Conner went to Washington to persuade the USDA to split the cost with the state of Florida.
John Block, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture:
“There’s been a log jam here, it’s held back progress. But the log jams broken now and the federal government is prepared to go right ahead and make these payments based upon our 50 percent responsibility of the indemnities of the eradication of citrus canker.”
“One of the policies of state government and federal government is when they say a check in is the mail, we’re going to try and make that real.”
This was the first plant indemnification agreement ever made by the federal government.
Conner’s steadfast protection of Florida’s product from pests and disease strengthened the state’s agricultural reputation.
While agricultural diseases periodically grab the headlines, the unheralded fact was that an army of inspectors was busy, daily checking and analyzing food products from the farm to the retail shelf.
Doyle Conner always kept a strong focus on food safety.
Conner once said of the American farmer, “people of the soil understand the need to protect the environment.”
John Block, Former United States Secretary of Agriculture:
“Commissioner Conner say’s we need to tell the agriculture story. The American consumer is well cared for in this country.”
“The highest quality food, the most reasonable priced, the greatest abundance, the most variety, it’s all there, at the most reasonable price in the world.”
“Fourteen percent of disposable family income. And the consumer’s no fool. The consumer knows that. Always thinks it costs too much, but still knows, that it’s pretty good right here in the good ole USA.”
Florida’s Department of Agriculture made strides in protecting ground water supplies from pesticides. And calmed fears about pesticide contamination of foods.
Innovations during his administration are numerous.
For instance, in 1972 Conner opened a new chemical residue laboratory in Tallahassee. The testing of food products for pesticide residue prevented chemical contamination.
The department joined with the department of Environmental Regulation to test for ground water contamination by pesticides and nitrates from farm use.
“We have the expertise to do the job and I think we can do it for fewer dollars than anyone else.”
In 1981 the department was designated as the lead agency in the implementation of the Florida Agricultural Water Quality plan to control pollution.
The following year, departmental scientists developed and perfected testing methods for the cancer causing agent ethylene dibromide, or EDB, on grain-based foods.
The federal government adopted Florida’s methodology for federal guidelines.
“The Florida Department of Agriculture immediately started looking for contamination, and unfortunately we found it, it was there.”
“I don’t know that it would have been found till today if we had not gone where we knew it was and did the testing.”
“We have the agency whose responsibility it is to do something about it. Do the testing until such time they can get their laboratories in place.”
And in 1989 the pesticide laboratory developed and implemented a method for testing for gaseous methyl bromide.
Florida is the first and only state with the capability to inspect, sample and analyze this important agricultural soil fumigant used in controlling nematodes.
The continuing inspection programs coordinated by the department under Conner cannot be understated.
Senator Pat Thomas:
“Today the public accepts the fact that you got to have good strong health-related regulation in food products. And Doyle would always come down on what he had to do in the name of consumers.”
Annually inspection personnel took hundreds of food samples and inspected processing, distribution and retail facilities to ensure a wholesome food supply.
They took hundreds of soil and water samples to determine the potential effects of ground water contamination from commercially applied pesticides. Their inspection capabilities improved as technology and methods changed.
Another area Conner responded to was organic farming. The department developed regulatory guidelines to protect growers from unscrupulous businessmen, as well as to make sure the consumer gets what it’s paid for.
Immediately after Doyle Conner took office the reorganization of the department was initiated.
The old Independent State Plant Board became the Division of Plant Industry. And the Livestock Sanitary Board became the Division of Animal Industry.
It was just nine years later that the Division of Consumer Services was established. And the Florida Forest Service became the departments Division of Forestry.
In 1960 the department had 500 employees and nine divisions. In 1990 the department had 3,800 employees and 11 divisions.
No state agency had more regulatory authority or touched the lives of more people. The department’s regulatory duties increased annually during the Conner years.
Truck scales and gasoline pumps were inspected, as well as supermarket food scales and price scanners. Seed, fertilizer, brake fluid, and charcoal briquettes were among the kinds of commodities regulated by the department.
Doyle Conner’s childhood prepared him to become Florida’s seventh Commissioner of Agriculture.
At age 6 young Doyle was given his first cow by his father. And used it to start his own cattle herd.
By age 12 he’d managed the farm. He later mortgaged the herd to pay for college and to study agriculture at the University of Florida.
Holding various campus offices he received a bachelor degree in agriculture in 1952.
Senator Pat Thomas:
“I think there were four people who roomed together and I would later talk about the fact that those four people, one would become the Commissioner of Agriculture, one would become the chairman of the state Democratic Party, one became a member of the congress and one was a state senator. And I always think about what a cross section of life that foursome represented.”
Conner was destined to serve.
When he was a youngster at forestry camp, he met his predecessor Nathan Mayo.
As a member of the Bradford County 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs, young Conner proudly stood before the Commissioner. He declared to Mayo that while he hoped Mayo stayed Commissioner of Agriculture a long time, he was ready to take his place when Mayo stepped down.
Mayo took a liking to the youngster and helped him along the way.
Meanwhile young Conner went to work to realize his dream. He became a local, state and national president of Future Farmers of America. Ironically Conner lost his first bid at becoming president of his high school club.
But his persistence and determination brought early achievements. Conner was named one of the Nations Outstanding Youths by the Outdoors Writers of America in 1947.
One of the five Outstanding Young Men in Florida by the Jaycees in 1950. And one of the ten Outstanding Young Men in the Nation by the US Jaycees in 1961.
Doyle Conner was called the “boy wonder of Florida politics.” He was described a soft- spoken southern gentleman of the old order.
He exuded a down home charm and a patrician ire, having once been tagged as “Debonair Doyle” by the media.
Bob Bobroff, Retired Agricultural Editor, Orlando Sentinel:
“I can’t find another person in all those years that matches Doyle and the way he handled his department. I think he was admired by the media, but they just didn’t know how to handle him.”
A fourth-generation Floridian born December 17, 1928, in Starke, Conner was only 21 when he was first elected to public office. In fact he was running for public office before he’d registered to vote.
“The registration books in my county did not open until the day for qualifying, the final day for qualifying for the office.”
“Fortunately the books opened at 8 o’clock in the morning and it was a 12 o’clock deadline for qualifying to run for the House of Representatives.
“So here I had been campaigning all over the county for the House of Representatives against the incumbent and if I had stumped my toe somewhere and not been able to register to vote I could have never been a qualified candidate.”
“But I was able to register to vote and then go down and pay my qualifying fee on the final day just before noon.”
Conner was elected as a member of the House of Representatives for Bradford County, winning the first of 13 elections without defeat during his political career.
His election to the House of Representatives in 1950 came while he was still a college student. While serving 10 years in the house Conner was Chairman of the House Rules and Calendar Committee and became the youngest Speaker of the House in Florida’s history.
Dr. Allen Morris, Clerk Emeritus Historian:
“The time came to select the Speaker for the 1957, I believe, he was one of five that started the pace but before the election came it had dwindled down to him. So it was obvious he was highly regarded by his colleagues.”
His record was long and honorable in providing legislation that protected and enhanced Florida agriculture.
“Hello, I’m Doyle Conner, candidate for Commissioner of Agriculture. I’d like to tell you about my background, my philosophy of government.”
At age 31 Conner was elected to the position of Commissioner of Agriculture, the youngest person to ever serve in this role.
As Commissioner he distinguished himself on the national level as president of both the Southern and National Association of the State Departments of Agriculture, and as president and co-founder of the Southern United States Trade Association.
He was dean of all the agriculture commissioners in the nation.
Dr. Phillip Alamphl, Former Secretary of Agriculture, State of New Jersey:
“Doyle Conner has been and is the best Commissioner of Agriculture of the United States. We’ve all been the recipient of his great leadership and wise council. Florida, United States and world agriculture have all benefited from his many contributions, especially food safety in the market place, all done with great class.”
While serving on Florida’s Cabinet, Conner was known as an independent minded conservative, rather than as a strongly partisan democrat. His interests were always on Florida agriculture.
Senator Pat Thomas:
“I don’t think anybody ever accused Doyle of being partisan in his response. Doyle, didn’t take him long to establish the confidence of people in this state.”
Sr. Allen Morris, clerk Emeritus Historian:
“Well I think we can safely say that he has been the bridge between the old Florida and the new Florida, between north Florida and south Florida.”
Conner once said that “Agriculturalists must unite with one voice to espouse the industry’s ideas and views for the future. For these ideas will determine whether Florida agriculture lives or dies.”
One might say that for 30 years Doyle Conner was that voice. And his ideas added life to Florida agriculture.
When he announced his retirement, Conner ranked as the youngest, longest term office holder on any state cabinet in the nation.
As Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture and cabinet member, he by reason of his longevity, exercised more power over many cabinet decisions than did governors.
No one worked more diligently to preserve the agricultural way of life than this Commissioner of agriculture.
And it is highly unlikely that any Commissioner or Cabinet member ever again, will serve as long, as proudly, and as successfully as Doyle Conner.