In Florida Grower magazine’s 2019 State of the Vegetable and Small Fruit Industry Survey, we asked growers if they expect more regulatory scrutiny on farming practices’ impact on water quality and quantity. The answer was a resounding yes, with 84% of respondents replying in the affirmative.
That’s not surprising after several terrible years of algal blooms and red tides. The new governor and agriculture commissioner made water a cornerstone of their successful campaigns. When the governor fired and appointed an entirely new South Florida Water Management Board (SFWMB), it was clear there will be a new level of attention paid to the ongoing problem of water quality and challenges emanating from Lake Okeechobee.
But, what will this new level of attention look like? And who is going to get the most scrutiny? Those are good questions, and ones that farmers and ranchers in the region are certainly paying close attention to.
The state has adopted the Best Management Practices (BMPs) program to address water-related concerns in agriculture. Administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), the program aims to improve water quality and reduce water usage in crops, nurseries, and livestock.
During a SFWMB workshop held in May, BMPs were called into question by some board members because of their voluntary nature. Vanessa Bessey, an Environmental Administrator with FDACS, gave a presentation on the program and was questioned as to why growers are not required to prove the practices are actually reducing the amount of nutrients going into waterways.
“If they implement the BMPs developed and recognized by the [Florida Department of Environmental Protection], there’s the presumption they’re meeting water quality standards,” Bessey noted. “It’s intuitive to us that if they put less fertilizer on their land, there will be less coming off their land.”
The Board’s Vice Chairman, Scott Wagner, questioned the effectiveness of a BMP program based on “theory” and self-regulation. Bessey noted that FDACS inspectors visited 3,600 of the 11,000 farms participating in the program in the past year and would like to do more, but they are limited by staffing and budgets.
It is safe to say the overall vibe of the workshop held a negative gaze on agriculture. Not surprising in an increasingly urban state. It is much easier to point the finger toward someone else rather than try to understand the bigger picture and all the factors involved.
That’s not to say some points weren’t scored on agriculture’s behalf. Rich Budell, who was FDACS Director of Agricultural Water Policy for 17 years, defended the BMP program. In particular, he mentioned the efforts in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) where growers have reduced nutrient loading by more than 50% in the past 25 years. He said it is likely the most successful BMP program in the world, and certainly in the U.S.
Budell dismissed Wagner’s claim that BMPs were based on theory, noting they were built on scientific study and documentation. He also cautioned that it is not realistic to expect BMP performance to be as good in other parts of the state as in the EAA. That’s because growers and engineers have so much control of the water in the EAA. Other areas do not have that control. “Nutrients move with water,” he said.
Our survey respondents were right. Whether you grow south or north of the lake, agriculture is going to be in the middle of the rancorous debate over water in the coming weeks, months, and years.