Much of Florida’s agriculture industry will have to follow best management practices for irrigation and fertilizer use or conduct water quality monitoring under new regulations taking effect July 1.
Many Florida farms probably already comply, as certain regions of the state and industry segments rolled out best practices years earlier, said Ron Hamel, executive vice president at the Gulf Citrus Growers Association in Fort Myers, Fla.
“I think some of the smaller folks are going to feel the pinch,” said Jaime Weisinger, an executive and fourth-generation family member at Lipman Family Farms, a major tomato grower based in Immokalee, Fla. Weisinger is also a member of the governing board for the South Florida Water Management District.
“It’s important for those guys to get up to par,” he told Bloomberg Environment June 25.
He said Lipman and other major farm operations already follow best practices and aren’t likely to feel much impact from the new state requirements.
The same is true for U.S. Sugar Corp., a major grower of sugarcane, corn, and citrus fruit in Florida, according to Judy Sanchez, the company’s spokeswoman. Farmers in southern Florida’s Everglades Agricultural Area, including U.S. Sugar, have been required to follow best management practices since the passage of the state’s Everglades Forever Act in 1994, she said.
For those farms not already following best practices—and state records indicate thousands fall into that category—the cost of complying could vary widely depending on the size of farm, Weisinger said.
Basin Plan Updates
The Florida Department of Environment Protection recently finalized rules for nonpoint source dischargers that cover farms, construction sites, municipal stormwater systems, and other sources of runoff pollution. The rules coincide with the department’s drafting of new basin management action plans for many regions of the state.
The basin plans outline strategies and wastewater permitting requirements aimed at controlling specific pollutants or nutrients that exceed the state-mandated limits in local water supplies.
The nonpoint source rules are part of a broad water policy overhaul that the state Legislature enacted in 2016.
While some parts of the state battle excess nitrogen loads in springs and other water supplies, the focus of basin plans in southern Florida tends to be phosphorus runoff, Sanchez said.
“That’s a naturally occurring component of our Everglades muck soil,” she told Bloomberg Environment on June 22.
Florida’s agriculture industry produces a wide range of crops and animal products worth about $8 billion a year, most notably producing more than half of the U.S. output of oranges and sugar cane, according to state and federal data.
The state does offer a cost-sharing grant program, said Charles Shinn, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation’s director of government and community affairs.
For example, if a farm has to spend $100,000 on a new irrigation system, it can apply for state funds to reimburse a percentage of the cost, sometimes as much as 90 percent in a high-priority water basin, he said.
Common best practice requirements would include more targeted irrigation and fertilizer application, as well as drainage structures to limit sediment runoff.
Best Practices Seen as Better Option
More targeted fertilizer application saves farmers money—in some cases letting them cut fertilizer usage in half while maintaining their previous crop production levels, Shinn said.
“You grab hold of that kind of technology as fast as you can,” he said.
About 9,000 farms have already adopted state-approved best practices out of roughly 47,000 farms in the state, according to a state agriculture department report.
Farms aren’t likely to opt for conducting their own water quality monitoring in lieu of following best practices, Shinn said, as “self-monitoring would be an incredibly expensive program.”
If they do choose monitoring, farms must get state approval for a plan to regularly sample water and conduct laboratory testing, plus submit an annual report to the state and maintain records for five years.
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