Tour highlights conservation efforts in the Everglades Agricultural Area

– Regulators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, representatives of environmental groups and others got a firsthand look at how Florida farmers are doing their part to take care of the Everglades.

The Conservation in Action Tour brought together growers, officials from the South Florida Water Management District, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and others in mid-October for a trip through the Everglades Agricultural Area. The annual tour is planned by the Conservation Technology Information Center, which provides technical, educational and practical support to America’s agricultural communities for implementing conservation practices.

The jam-packed tour included stops at farms, stormwater treatment areas and an important research center.

From BMPs to STAs

In introductory remarks, Tom MacVicar, an engineering consultant formerly with SFWMD, explained the history of the EAA and the development of Best Management Practices and stormwater treatment areas to improve the quality of water, the sustainability of soil and the preservation of the Everglades.

“In the 1990s, farms faced a legal challenge to make their agricultural runoff pristine,” he said. “Now, the landowners employ BMPs and work with the STAs to remove phosphorus from the water coming from the farms.” The BMPs were developed in partnership with University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences to minimize phosphorus runoff.

The tour’s overriding theme from growers and others was that of continual improvement in this endeavor.

Malcom "Bubba" Wade of U.S. Sugar Corp. explains how the menu of BMPs works.

There’s actually a menu of BMPs from which a farmer can choose, said Malcolm “Bubba” Wade, a senior vice president with U.S. Sugar Corporation. Two practices are mandatory and the grower can select others. “By implementing these BMPs, we were able to see a 55 percent reduction in phosphorus over a 19-year period, where only a 25 percent reduction was mandated.”

BMPs include:

  • Removing phosphorus-containing sediment from canals and ditches before the water leaves company property
  • Refined fertilizer application
  • Precise stormwater pumping practices
  • Erosion controls such as laser-leveling fields to reduce or stop wind erosion.

There are three types of BMPs, said Tim Lang, a researcher with the University of Florida’s Everglades Research and Education Center: nutrient control, water management and particulate management.

FFVA member Paul Orsenigo explains nutrient management practices.

Grower Paul Orsenigo of Orsenigo Farms braved a downpour to demonstrate nutrient control. He showed how technology allows his operation to implement a process called banding, which results in precision nutrient management. Banding positions fertilizer in a specific area within the field, generally near the plant roots, in contrast to broadcast strategies which apply fertilizer more or less evenly across the entire field surface. Band-application of fertilizers to agricultural fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area is an effective BMP to reduce phosphorus loads leaving farms via drainage waters. See more on banding here.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services produces separate BMP manuals for various crops and regions.

Once a grower puts BMPs into place, water from the farm flows to stormwater treatment areas, which further reduce phosphorus levels using cattails, floating plants, submerged aquatic vegetation and microbial communities, said presenter Delia Ivanoff of SFWMD.

Rodent control is a hoot

Growers place owl boxes in their fields for chemical-free rodent control.

Another way farmers reduce their impact on the Everglades environment is through an innovative program that uses barn owls rather than chemical rodenticides to control rats in the fields.

Dr. Richard Raid, a UF plant pathologist, explained how farmers use barn owl boxes throughout their fields. “These owls are prolific for raptors. They breed well and they eat a lot of rats,” Raid explained. “They’re tremendous at reducing rodenticide use.”

Grower John Scott Hundley of Hundley Farms was on hand for the owl demonstration and added that he had recently installed 50 boxes on his land and hasn’t had to use rodenticide since. “Rats are like filet mignon to those owls,” he said.

Raid said 400 to 500 owl boxes have been installed throughout the EAA.

Rice is nice

Sugar cane grower Luigi Trotta and Dr. Ron Rice of UF’s Palm Beach County Extension Office teamed up to explain the environmental advantages of planting rice to give fields a break from sugar cane production. Flooded the rice fields plays an important role in organic soil conservation. Rice is the perfect BMP crop for cane, they stressed, saying it mimics the stormwater treatment areas in reducing phosphorus levels in water headed to the Everglades. It’s also wonderful for wildlife, said Reena Borkhataria, another EREC researcher.  “The fields have low inputs, so young birds are protected from chemicals,” she said.

Letting soil settle and wasps do their work

This subsidence post at the Everglades Research and Education Center shows that soil loss due to oxidation has slowed greatly since the introduction of agricultural Best Management Practices.

Researchers demonstrated how BMPs have reduced oxidation in soil, resulting in a reduction of soil loss. They showed how the soil level had dropped drastically since the 1920s but has since slowed greatly because of establishment of soil BMPs.

They also explained how tiny parasitic wasps are being used in sugarcane production to decrease insecticide use. The wasps, called parasitoids, deposit their eggs directly into the sugar cane borer larvae, destroying the pests from within.

Sugarcane BMPs from land prep to harvest

The tour’s final stop was at a sugarcane farm.

Steve Stiles, a farm manager with U.S. Sugar Corporation, explained how technology allows his company to control water and waste products. Fields are made level using laser and GPS applications to conserve water.

The company manages nutrient use through regular soil sampling, leaf tissue analysis and other practices so that nutrient recommendations are tailored to each soil type and other unique conditions.

Tour participants watched sugar cane being planted, harvested and loaded on to railroad cars.

The tour concluded with a dinner overlooking Lake Okeechobee. Grower Derek Orsenigo offered reflections on the tour and the EAA, and thanks were offered to sponsors and others who were instrumental in putting together the tour.

See comments and photos from participants and learn more about the tour on CTIC’s Twitter page.

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