UF to enhance extension demonstration and research programs at Hastings facility

By:
Tom Nordlie (352) 392-0400

Source(s):
David Dinkins ddinkins@co.st-johns.fl.us, 904-209-0430
Jimmy Cheek jgcheek@ifas.ufl.edu, 352-392-1971
John Baldwin baldwinj@ifas.ufl.edu, 352-392-1781
Brad Purcell brad@bradpurcell.com, 386-328-9725

Other Sources:
Karen Stern bccd2@co.st-johns.fl.us, 904-209-0302
Mark Warren mwwarren@ifas.ufl.edu, 386-437-7464
Dave Fisk dfisk@sjrwmd.com, 386-312-2300
Mark Clark clarkmw@ifas.ufl.edu, 352-392-1803 ext. 319
Pierce Jones ez@energy.ufl.edu, 352-392-8074
Chad Hutchinson cmhutchinson@ifas.ufl.edu, 904-692-1792
Wayne Smith patsysigman@hotmail.com, 904-669-6647

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Years ago, the only place you’d find rapid growth in Northeast Florida was in a potato or cabbage field. Not anymore – for two years running, Flagler County has had the fastest-rising population of any county in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

To help protect water quality and boost farming as the area becomes more developed, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences will enhance extension demonstration and research programs at its Hastings Demonstration Unit, aided by a recent $500,000 appropriation from the state legislature.

The effort comes in response to requests from farmers, developers and government officials in Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties – known collectively as the tri-county agricultural area – along with the St. Johns River Water Management District, said David Dinkins, St. Johns County extension director.

“Growth means change, but everybody wants to hold onto the things that make this area great,” Dinkins said. “Farming provides fresh food, green space, wildlife habitat and economic stability. In these three counties alone, agricultural and natural resources industries have economic impact totaling more than $1 billion per year.”

A plan to enhance activity at both of UF’s Hastings facilities – one in the downtown area and one on Cowpen Branch Road – is being developed by a grassroots coalition of local leaders that formed in 2005, he said. Dinkins, along with Flagler and Putnam county extension directors Sharon Treen and Edsel Redden, are part of the committee.

The plan will likely put new emphasis on potatoes, cabbage, alternative crops and environmental horticulture, said Jimmy Cheek, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. New personnel including a demonstration coordinator and biological scientist may be added.

“Northeast Florida is facing development-related issues that will become more prevalent throughout the state and the nation in years to come,” Cheek said. “This is a great opportunity for us to learn how UF can better help communities plan for growth.”

UF administrators are evaluating internal funding options and are seeking support from local, state and federal sources, said John Baldwin, Northeast Florida district extension director. Both the St. Johns River Water Management District and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have already pledged their help.

“We’re also pleased and humbled that the county commissions of Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties have supported our efforts to secure state funds,” Baldwin said. “Their help was crucial in obtaining the $500,000 allocation from the Florida Legislature.”

All three commissions consider the Hastings unit a legislative priority, said Brad Purcell, a Putnam County commissioner.

“The challenges facing our farmers are greater than ever before, making the unit essential,” Purcell said. “We know our farmers need access to those critical resources and we stand prepared to support UF and our local agriculture agents to provide them. All three counties have a shared vision and are speaking with one voice in this effort.”

Perhaps the biggest goal for local leaders is to keep some farmland in use, said Karen Stern, a St. Johns County commissioner. With thousands of new arrivals in need of homes, developers pay up to $20,000 per acre for land. Some farmers are selling their operations and leaving the business. The amount of land farmed in the area declines by about 10 percent each year.

“One way to maintain our farmland is by ensuring that farming is profitable,” Stern said. Alternative crops may help growers earn more, said Mark Warren, a Flagler County extension agent. Researchers in Hastings will evaluate varieties of grapes, sod, pumpkins, squash, stone fruit such as peaches, and even energy crops, used to produce fuel.

“The challenge isn’t just to find crops that do well here, we also need growing practices that are affordable and sustainable here,” Warren said. “All three counties have slightly different needs, but we have a great deal in common, including unique climate and soil conditions.”

The area also shares a common watershed – the Lower St. Johns River Basin – which needs protection, said Dave Fisk, assistant executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District, which manages water resources in 18 north and east-central Florida counties.

In late July, authorities with the water management district, the city of Jacksonville and other agencies announced a new 10-year, $700 million plan to improve the health of the river. The lower basin extends more than 2,700 square miles from Putnam and Volusia counties through Jacksonville.

“There has been very positive progress in reducing some pollutants through agricultural best management practices (BMPs) and other advances in regional stormwater treatment but more work is needed,” Fisk said. “Current pollutant loads are exceeding the amount the lower St. Johns River can receive and still meet state and federal water-quality standards. Meeting these standards will only become more challenging as our region continues to grow.”

Scientists with the water management district and UF will work with community leaders to develop a two-pronged approach to reduce the impact of both residential development and farming on local water resources, said Mark Clark, a UF assistant professor of soil and water science.

“The UF facilities at Hastings provide a regional tailoring of best management practices that are usually statewide in application,” Clark said. “This area has a high water table, so it’s important that we test BMPs here and understand how well they’ll address water-quality concerns in this area.”

At the 50-acre downtown Hastings site, UF researchers will develop best management practices for residential community developments, related to water conservation, stormwater management and nutrient load reduction in local water resources, said Pierce Jones, director of the UF program for resource efficient communities.

“Construction of residential developments reshapes terrain and compacts soils,” Jones said. “In addition, housing, driveways, walkways and streets reduce permeable surface areas. These changes often directly and significantly reduce water percolation and increase surface water drainage patterns.

“When combined with typical residential landscaping practices, these changes can cause undesirable increases in the concentrations of nutrients and other chemicals in stormwater runoff,” he said. “The purpose of our research at Hastings is to identify design, construction and landscaping practices that minimize stormwater runoff and nutrient loading.”

In addition to the other BMP and low-impact development research projects they’ll pursue, scientists hope to secure funding to build 18 homes on the site, each with a one-fifth acre plot that is specially designed so that all water leaving the plot via runoff and leaching can be captured and analyzed. By using different construction and landscaping options on the plots, researchers can accurately evaluate the environmental impact of various approaches.

The 50-acre site at Cowpen Branch Road will be used for studies related to agricultural water use, said Chad Hutchinson, a UF associate professor of horticultural sciences. One will investigate whether controlled-release fertilizer could be used successfully on crop fields. This fertilizer does not dissolve easily in water and loses few nutrients to storm runoff, which results in less nutrient pollution entering the river.

UF facilities in Hastings have played a crucial role in the area’s potato industry for more than 80 years, Hutchinson said. Researchers helped increase average potato production from 5,500 pounds per acre in 1923 to nearly 30,000 pounds per acre today.

In 2002, budget cuts forced UF to reduce the scope of its research programs in Hastings, but local interest has remained strong, Hutchinson said. He is currently the only UF faculty member stationed at the Hastings Demonstration Unit full-time.

“We plan to bring more Gainesville research faculty and graduate students out here,” he said. “It’s a great place to get experience working directly with producers, finding out what they need and getting their feedback about our efforts.”

Area farmers are eager for new information and technology that could help them gain an edge in today’s changing markets, said Wayne Smith, a third-generation St. Johns County farmer whose crops include potatoes and sod.

“Some people believe this area will not be a viable agricultural community much longer, but I beg to differ,” he said. “Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties still have viable agricultural interests, despite population pressure and increasing land value. Locally focused research from UF helps their farmers stay in business, and it can help us do the same.”

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Posted: August 24, 2006


Category: UF/IFAS



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