During the last session of the 2020 Virtual Ag BMP Summit, a panel presented BMP success stories. The panel included
- Gene McAvoy, UF/IFAS Extension, discussing Southwest Florida tomato production
- David Royal, The Nature Conservancy, discussing 4R Partnership
- Hugh Thomas, Suwanee River Water Managemenet District, discussing the Suwannee River Partnership.
Mr. McAvoy has been working on BMPs since 1997. From his extensive experience, he has seen how BMPs have evolved over time and how attitudes on the topic have changed.
BMPs have always been a controversial subject because various groups have differing perspectives. BMPs are also constantly changing with new research. When Mr. McAvoy first began working with BMPs, farmers were applying 400 lbs/acre of nitrogen. After increased education efforts and research trials, farmers are now applying 240 lbs/acre (with the IFAS recommendation being 200 lbs/acre). Researchers and extension agents have been working together to discover how far fertilizer application can be reduced without negatively affecting crop yields. In fact, farmers may even be able to go 2-3 years without applying phosphorus without damaging yields.
Farmers might never reach the IFAS goal of 200 lbs/acre of nitrogen, but consistent progress is being made. With advancements in technology and farming practices, farmers are now producing double the yield they were producing 20 years ago. Even with reduced fertilizer application, farmers are for more successful today. We are continuing to adapt BMPs to best reflect the latest research, and Extension agents continue to deliver the best recommendations for ensuring excellent soil and water quality.
The Nature Conservancy is a worldwide conservation organization with the goal of working with Florida agriculture to help improve and protect water quality. Mr. Royal has been with The Nature Conservancy for 6 years as he works with the agriculture industry to promote and educate farmers on the 4R stewardship program.
One factor affecting the water quality problem is that the population is increasing while farm area is decreasing. This trend began in 1985, and since then water quality has been a hot topic. As of 2017, Florida is home to 9.7 million acres of farmland. The Nature Conservancy works primarily with row crop farmers because they are using the most fertilizer. Florida’s water quality problem is different than states in the Midwest because we utilize a different cropping system. While other states may only grow one crop on a piece of land, Florida’s farmers may grow as many as 2-4 crops on an acre in a year’s time. This means that the land is heavily farmed with little time in between crops for cover crops or other methods for refreshing soil health and water quality.
As the population continues to increase, farmers must pay more attention to BMAPs and BMPs. BMPs are general best practices for soil and water conservation, while BMAPs are practices specific to farms that are located near a watershed. Both BMPs and BMAPs are becoming higher priorities for farmers because if they take care of their land, the land will take care of them. The main goal is for the entire state to adopt BMPs due to all of Florida being laced with waterways.
An example of a current water quality issue is the Okeechobee watershed which begins north of Disney World. Lake Okeechobee is a catch basin for Disney World has become a catch basin from the north, which is having a severe effect on water quality. Another more widespread issue is water contamination from septic tanks. Most of the state is covered with septic tanks, which provides ample opportunity for water contamination to occur and spread.
The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program involves finding the right source, right rate, right time, and right place for fertilization. This program is a priority because it produces better crop performance, improved soil health, and cleaner air and water. The program works hand in hand with BMPs and is part of the FDACs manuals. So far it is only included in the vegetable BMP manual, but it will be incorporated into future editions of the other manuals.
The 4R Advocate Awards were introduced in 2013 to recognize farmers that have gone above and beyond to be good stewards of their land. The first award went to Alan Jones of Jones Potato and Service Provider Dennis Coleman with Nutrien. Jones divided his land into a grid and tested each block so that he could fertilize according to soil type. He also switched from seepage to pivot irrigation. The result of his efforts was a 30% reduction of fertilizer use and a 60% reduction of water use. His irrigation and fertilization management strategies kept nutrients in the root zone so that the wetlands surrounding his property continue to thrive.
The 2017 4R Advocate Award Winner was Gary Reader with West Coast Tomato and Service Provider Dennis Coleman with Nutrien. Reader developed a fertilization method that involved creating two troughs along the rows in his field prior to planting. He would then fill these troughs with fertilizer as he prepared the beds. Even though he continued to use seepage irrigation, he carefully managed his irrigation schedule so that he would only run it when needed and for the shortest amount of time. By following the 4Rs, Reader reduced his production cost by $896 per acre, cut nitrogen application rates by 60%, and protected the nearby Little Manatee Riverhead from contamination.
The 2018 Advocate Award Winner was Glenn and Mark Beck with Beck Brothers Citrus and Service Provider Rob Watson with Griffin Fertilizer. They have 8,500 acres and used a CNI on the tractor to read tree canopies. They utilized the data they collected to fertilize only according to tree needs and enjoyed immense savings in fertilizer use.
Another success story is from the 2019 4R Advocate Award Winner: Dustin Grooms with Fancy Farms and Service Provider Jerrod Parker with Chemical Dynamics Inc. Strawberries have one of the longest growing seasons, so Grooms realized he could make a large impact by altering his practices. He began utilizing soil and tissue testing, multiple split fertilizer applications, soil moisture monitors, and alternative nutrient sources to the fungicide applications. His shift in practices resulted in cost savings of $105 per acre.
The final example is the 2020 4R Advocate Award Winner: John Hundley and Eric Hopkins with Hundley Farms and Service Provider Tim Stein with Wedgworth Fertilizer. They farm 20,000 acres plus with sweet corn being their main crop plus a lot of leafy vegetables along with sugarcane. They farm in the EAA and are using precision ag along with other technology to protect water quality.
On a farm in north Florida, they are changing their production practices to help improve and protect water quality in this region. In the first year, they participated in a cost share program to use a side dressing applicator. This practice alone saved them 20# of nitrogen per acre. In the second year, they converted to Y-drop application and used soil moisture probes. These practices resulted in a savings of 30# of nitrogen per acre and 160,000,00 gallons of water. They also decided to switch to pivot irrigation and controlled release fertilizer. This switch had a larger upfront cost but was not any more expensive in the long run and resulted in nitrogen and irrigation savings.
One of The Nature Conservancy’s major goals is to encourage the use of cover crops. Cover crops enhance soil health by adding organic matter into the soil, which in turn benefits the crops being planted after. Incorporate cover crops into Florida’s intensive cropping systems can be difficult, but many farmers are trying it because they want to keep their soil healthy.
These initiatives are a team effort to create change across the state. More government officials need to meet with farmers in the field to realize the immense changes that are taking place. They also need to see how BMPs are affecting the agriculture industry.
The Florida 4R Certification Program was scheduled to begin in January 2020 as part of the global 4R organization. It was postponed due to unforeseen circumstances and continued development, but there are already 6 fertilizer companies that are ready to gain certification once COVID-19 is subdued and it is safe for certification to begin. Florida is the 3rd state to initiate this program, behind Ohio and New York. The goal of the program is to encourage agricultural retailers, service providers, and other certified professionals to adopt BMPs through the 4Rs. This approach provides a science-based framework for nutrient management and sustained crop production, while still being adaptable to the needs of individual farms. Everyone in Florida is part of the water and soil quality problem, so we all need to ask ourselves: “what can I do to be part of the solution?”
The Suwannee River Partnership was formed in 1999 with 24 signatory members. Today, there are 64 members that come from the government, SWCDs, UF, FAMU, the Florida Farm Bureau, the agriculture industry, and environmental interest groups. The partnership’s goal is to identify what can be done to sustain agriculture in the Suwannee area. The mission statement of the partnership is: “To provide research-based solutions that protect and conserve the water resources within the Suwannee River Basin and Coastal Rivers Basin, including the implementation of voluntary or incentive-based programs.” This mission is meant to benefit all citizens of the area.
The partnership is unique because it is funded by multiple sources and has a coordinator employed by UF/IFAS. Although many people assume the initiative is limited to Florida, however 57% of the basin is actually located in Georgia. The recent initiative to reinvigorate membership has included folks from Georgia because the efforts of both states are required to protect the basin. The Suwannee Basin also includes the most freshwater springs of any location worldwide, so it is especially important to protect the precious freshwater through regulation. This initiative also aims to involve a variety of organizations within the agriculture industry because the partnership’s mission is focused on implementation.
One in five farms in Florida are in Suwannee, with an incredibly diverse mix of commodities. The original goal of the partnership was to improve water quality, but it has expanded to include quantity as well. These issues pose a major challenge to the region because water is needed for the farms, but the natural waterways also need to be protected.
A TMDL is the maximum amount of a given pollutant that a water body can absorb and still maintain its designated uses (such as drinking water, fishing, swimming, or shellfish harvesting). One water body can have several TMDLs because they each target one pollutant. Examples of pollutants are phosphorus, nitrogen, and iron. The partnership is working with the Department of Environmental Protection to establish these TMDLs for the region.
Another action being taken is the establishment of BMAPs. These are strategies created by the FDEP and stakeholders within the TMDL area to achieve the water quality goal. They are necessary for recovering from current issues and preventing future damage to water quality and quantity.
The partnership continues to meet so that they can deliver updates on challenges, identify new projects and potential for additions to the partnership, spread innovation and outreach, and work on the future of BMPs and agriculture.
Watch the panel discussion recording.
Written by Natasha Roberts, CLUE Communications Intern
Question and Answer Panel Discussion: Gene McAvoy, David Royal, and Hugh Thomas
Q: Can you talk about the CARES program? It’s exciting to see the partnerships and programs aimed at using science-based information to benefit both Ag and the environment. What’s the process of coordination amongst 4R, CARES, and the Suwanee partnership?
A – Hugh Thomas: The CARES event is actually an acronym that the partnership came up with. The first CARES event was in July 2000 and the events have continued annually, up until this year; COVID through a damper on that, unfortunately. CARES stands for County Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship; the Farm Bureau is one of the partnership members that came up with that acronym. It is an annual program where producers and their operations are recognized for implementing conservation practices and best management practices; not only enrolling in but implementing those and continuing to operate with this. As a recipient of the CARES award, the producers are able to participate with their families, certainly in the recognition portion, and receive a sign that details information about their farm and also has portrayal of the CARES logo on it. Usually at the event we have as many as 600-900 people that show up to recognize the Ag operations. In the past we’ve had the Commissioner of Agriculture there on several instances, the Secretary of DEP, representatives from IFAS, certainly the Farm Bureau, and the water management district, all to congratulate those farmers, along with many of the public. You know when you think about best management practices those practices are very similar to what NRCS or Natural Resource Conservation Service calls their conservation practices. And then you have the 4R’s, which carries it a little bit further I think, and refines that management strategy a little bit more.
A – David Royal: I think the big thing about the 4R’s is it’s got the scientific backing; I’m not saying the others don’t, but they do have the scientific backing from those three major organizations that it’s there as a tool to help protect and improve water quality, and that’s why we worked to get it into the BMP manuals.
A – Gene McAvoy: David made a point in the chat box that CARES has now gone statewide and recognizes farmers all around the State through the Farm Bureau for their participation and their conservation efforts, and I think it’s really important that we get the word out to the public that these farmers are being proactive and taking positive steps to protect water quality and water quantity.
A – Hugh Thomas: Yeah, I would agree with you Gene. The other programs are somewhat modeled after what was initiated here in the Suwannee district and I’ve been part of some of the other county programs as well. I think it’s a great effort, and it certainly helps raise the awareness. Agriculture has been blamed for a lot of problems across the state, and so this is one avenue to help educate the public about what agriculture is doing to help protect our resources and raise that awareness of how important agriculture is across the landscape.
A – Michael Dukes (Moderator): What I hear, just to wrap this up, is this is about people. I think David is a perfect example of someone who gets up in the morning and thinks about 4R’s how to promote that program and tie it into agriculture. I think that’s what I’m hearing from you Hugh, is the Suwannee River partnership placed people – one of those people for some time was you – in a role where you get up every morning and you think, “how do I work on the Suwanee River partnership?” “How do I work on BMPs?” “How do I work on Ag?” So that’s the kind of a theme that I took away from all of this, and that’s a really important piece.
Q: Any final words before we sign off?
A – David Royal: In the chat you’ve got the thing about the interviewed stories. Get with Hugh. The Suwannee partnership did 10 videos last year that De Broughton did and they’re really short. I thought they did a phenomenal job on the videos. They sent out only one a week and it was farmers talking about what they do on their farms to be good stewards of the land. I thought they did a great job with those video clips.
Q: Is big sugar an active partner in BMP practices?
A – David Royal: Absolutely.
A – Gene McAvoy: I’m working very closely with sugar; I don’t know why we call it big sugar, it’s the sugar industry. They’ve been very active and a leader in best management practices in South Florida. If you look at the water that comes off Lake Okeechobee they’re actually cleaning it up before it’s released into the conversation areas. So they’re a net sink for phosphorus coming out of the lake, and they are very positive and have taken a very proactive stance on BMPs.
A – David Royal: And I think Mr. Gene could answer, but their BMPs are stricter than anybody else’s in the state.
A – Gene McAvoy: And legislatively imposed. The sugar industry is under mandated BMPs, and over the last 20 years they’ve hit state-imposed targets 19 of the 20 years, so they’re going above and beyond what is being required of them.
A – Hugh Thomas: In closing, one of the things I think made the partnership so successful is as part of the partnership effort there are 5 technicians, and their positions are tri funded as well in that respect. Those positions are very important because education is what’s key on all sides of this, whether it’s a regulatory agency, ag producers, or the folks in opposition to agriculture. Relative to that, education is what’s key is, IFAS is a key component of that educational outreach, and that’s what I’ve seen over the years make a big difference. Producers, they hear a term about best management practices, well by definition, best management practices should be implementable, cost effective, and protective of the environment. All of those things add up as pluses for ag producers. It’s educating them and providing them with the tools like David mentioned earlier. Producers are innovative enough that if they’re still in the business today they’re innovative enough that they’ll come up with ways to make that technology work and be beneficial.
A – Michael Dukes (Moderator): I think that’s a great closing point and I’ll just cap it off by saying that UF/IFAS Extension education is our business, so were happy to be involved in that and we wake up every day thinking about that; education.
A – Hugh Thomas: Here here!
A – David Royal: Agriculture is always going to be a work in progress because there is always new technology and better production practices coming out. So, just because what happened 20 years ago… I get hit so many times with, “well why did they do it that way?” Well that was the best way at that time, and I think agriculture has made more strides than any other industry in our state to protect our state.
A – Gene McAvoy: I think that’s why continuing research is necessary to support this effort.