As president of the Highlands County Farm Bureau, Scott Kirouac deals with a lot of big issues, and he's not shy about talking about them.
From water regulations to immigration reform, and even helping the poor in the community, Kirouac is a prominent voice in the local agriculture community.
Going on his third year as Farm Bureau president, Kirouac has served on the board for 13 years. "One of the focuses as an agriculturist is to get our message out to those not surrounded by ag every day," Kirouac said. "Agriculture certainly has challenges like any other business on a daily basis. Farmers are good stewards of the land, and many voluntarily practice Best Management Practices developed by industry leaders and FDACS."
Kirouac was born in Massachusetts but moved to Highlands County as a teen. He is a nurseryman and co-owner of Big Sky Growers with his brother, Steve Kirouac. He also sells soil for Hillary Peat, a wholesale supplier, and has over 20 years' experience in the industry.
Why does a busy dad and grandfather with a day job and his own business choose to take on a role as large as Farm Bureau president? "It's my passion for agriculture," he explained. Kirouac said that without the work of Farm Bureau's grass-roots lobbying on behalf of the ag industry "a lot would be out of business or burdened by so much regulation it would not be feasible cost-wise to continue."
Kirouac said water issues and immigration reform are two of the biggest issues Farm Bureau is involved with in Tallahassee and Washington. They have been winning the battle on allowing Florida to manage its own water quality, he said. "Farm Bureau believes water regulations need to be based on sound science. The state of Florida does a good job of managing water." Kirouac said that rainwater wouldn't even meet the recently proposed federal water guidelines.
Another issue that's a little stickier is immigration reform. If you talk to family around the dinner table about immigration, most people's gut reaction is that if you are here illegally you need to go home, Kirouac remarked. "Farm Bureau supports and realizes that there is a severe need for immigration reform. It has been proven time and time again that we don't have a domestic workforce willing to do these kinds of jobs ... even though we have record unemployment."
He also said there is a misconception that migrant workers are paid below minimum wage. Kirouac gestured to the women weeding potted plants at his nursery location on Henscratch Road. "All of the people here at the nursery have been with us for many years and all make above minimum wage," he said.
"Farmers have tried hiring domestic workers. In most cases they last less than a week," Kirouac added. "Jobs in agriculture can be labor-intensive at times and our society has evolved into a culture and time where domestic workers are just not willing to do these kind of jobs anymore, Kirouac frowned.
Kirouac believes that protecting U.S. agriculture is "a matter of national security." "We have representatives in Washington that have made statements like, 'Why don't we just import all of our food because it's cheaper?,'" Kirouac said, adding, "It's cheaper until you become dependent on them. American farmers provide the safest and most abundant source of food on the planet."
But Kirouac is passionate about more than the politics of agriculture. He loves kids and believes in investing in their health and teaching them where their food comes from. He also started the Ag Angels program, which raises money to buy Christmas gifts for the poorest children in the community.
In its seventh year, Ag Angels was born one day when Kirouac visited his grandson at Woodlawn Elementary. He overheard the staff talking about how some of the kids at the school would likely get nothing for Christmas.
"It kind of broke my heart," said Kirouac, remembering being a kid himself on Christmas morning and the excitement of having gifts to open. He asked the teachers if he brought some money would they be willing to shop for the children? The teachers said yes.
The program has grown and grown, and four years ago it was adopted by the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association (FNGLA) for which Kirouac has also served as president.
In the past four years, Ag Angels has raised over $50,000.
Kirouac said that 100 percent of donations go to purchase gifts for the children. No gift cards are allowed to be purchased so that funds can't be misused. Teachers and staff at local schools are asked to identify the neediest kids and to shop for them. The kids are also interviewed about their needs and wish lists.
Kirouac is proud of the program because he said that poverty and the behaviors that contribute to it are not the kids' fault. He has received many heartfelt letters from the schools Ag Angels has contributed to, sharing joyful stories and thanks.
"It almost chokes me up at times. I will continue to do what I'm doing to try to help out as many kids as I can," Kirouac said.
To make a donation to Ag Angels, call 863-873-3180 or email Kirouac at firstname.lastname@example.org.