The last crop – Zellwood growers end generations of farming
– Looking out across his fields near Lake Apopka, Billy Long ponders how he will spend his time in the years ahead. Corn planted now will be the last grown in this rich muck soil – a last harvest for this embattled farming area. Within weeks, state regulators will take possession and perhaps flood the fields, restoring the lake something close to its original measure.
“Yeah,” Long said. “If I go fishing out here someday in the future, I might be in a boat right over where I used to grow corn or carrots or goodness knows what.”
After years of scientific and legal debate, Zellwood-area growers agreed to sell their 14,000 acres for $95 million. The sale price includes the land, buildings, equipment – everything. Come July, the St. Johns River Water Management District becomes the new owners of this prime farming real estate. District officials say farm water runoff has seriously polluted Lake Apopka. Under their management, state officials hope the lake’s environmental health will improve.
Over at the Zellwood farm owned by A. Duda & Sons, farm General Manager Buddy Robinson surveys work crews from his company pickup truck. On the dashboard is a property sticker from the St. Johns District. Duda was the first farm to negotiate a deal with St. Johns, and district staffers have already conducted an inventory survey of the entire farm. “They’ve bought everything we’ve got and put their name on it,” Robinson said.
For Robinson and Long, the farm sale is an emotional final chapter in the 50-year story of farming around Lake Apopka. Men who love the land, who have grown carrots, celery, radishes, corn and dozens of other crops, cannot just walk away without profound remorse. Handing over the land and equipment, even for a fair price, was not the first choice for these growers. “It is sad to think about all that we have done on this land, how many people have worked here, and that we will have to walk away this summer,” said Robinson.
The Last Seed Planted
Billy Long, who must hand over his farm July 31, will harvest corn until the July 4 holiday. Once the harvest is over, crews begin the arduous task of preparing the farm for new owners … and a new future. El Nino-related weather has hurt his last season; excessive rains seriously damaged carrot crops and forced postponement of corn planting. As Long contemplates the end of his 45-year farm history here, he wishes his last crop could be one of his best. “I decided to put everything I had into this last crop and make it a good one, but it’s not working out that way,” he said. “It’s not a good feeling.”
Long’s family works the farm together, managing business, farm operations, billing and collections or whatever else must be done. Each loves the land and running the farm, but Long doubts they will reinvest their sale proceeds in agriculture. “I’ve always said this is the best farm land in the world,” said Long. “I’d hate to leave this farm location and go somewhere that wasn’t as good.”
Rex Clonts, an FFVA board member, also has regrets about leaving generations of family farming around Lake Apopka. Clonts has supported efforts to mitigate phosphorus discharges by adding alum to the water in specially designed holding ponds. The alum bonds with phosphorus, causing it to settle to the pond bottom before being water is released to the lake. “We spent a lot of money to try to make this work,” said Clonts. In the final analysis, it seems, the water management district just wanted the farms gone, no matter what the growers tried.
In 1993, to comply with the district’s demands for low phosphorus farm discharge, Duda took 300 acres out of production to create a water management pond. Scientists believed the pond would allow farm nutrients to settle or be filtered by vegetation before the water was released into the lake. Costing more than $1 million and built to district specifications, the pond was never able to consistently meet the stringent phosphorus discharge standards.
It’s In Their Hands Now
The future of the 31,000-acre lake remains uncertain, even with the controversial ousting of growers from their land. University of Florida scientists and others have criticized the St. Johns District plan for flooding the farms, saying it won’t improve the lake’s health or could make it worse. “The lake will remain green,” said Daniel Canfield, a UF lake expert, in a 1996 report. He says the lake’s high nutrient levels are not solely caused by farm runoff, and instead suggests that environmental officials drain the lake to kill algae and allow beneficial plants to take root at the lake’s bottom. The Environmental Protection Agency recommended the plan in 1979, but the project was shelved when money ran short.
The district’s principal plan calls for the farms, which took 19,000 acres of the lake’s northern shore as part of a World War II effort to boost food production, to be flooded or converted to a wetland state. Critics of that plan, however, say nutrients within the rich farm soil will leach into the water, boosting algae growth and worsening the lake’s condition.
“It’s not up to us to figure that out for them now,” said FFVA Chairman Glenn Rogers of Zellwin Farms. “We fought a hard battle to stay and be good stewards of the lake and the land, but [the St. Johns River Water Management District] didn’t want us here at all. It’s in their hands now.”
St. Johns officials have said the lake’s health is measurably better thanks to steps already taken by growers and others. That small victory holds no guarantee for future success; it might take decades to really know if $95 million dollars, hundreds of jobs and the loss of Florida’s best farms really bought anything for Lake Apopka.