State promotes best farm practices
JOHN BUCHANANMany Florida farmers discount or even ignore the growing importance of the state's best management practices program, usually because of a focus on other, more pressing issues such as labor or fuel costs.
Published: June 6, 2012
Published: June 6, 2012
But by doing so, they're missing an important opportunity to serve their industry and send a critical message.
That's because adoption of BMPs helps mitigate the view that commercial farmers and ranchers are polluters, said Brian Boman, a professor of agriculture and biological engineering at the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences' Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce.
Today, as environmental activists have ever-increasing public clout, BMPs — which establish specific guidelines for various types of operators — are more critical than ever, said Frankie Hall, director of the ag policy division at the Florida Farm Bureau in Gainesville.
"A farmer has two ways to go," said Hall, who has worked with IFAS and the Office of Agricultural Water Policy at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for a decade to promote BMPs. "Either he takes control through a voluntary approach, or he is regulated into doing it, like is the case in parts of South Florida, in places like Okeechobee County and the Everglades area."
Despite the potential threat of more mandated compliance across the state, most farmers fail to implement BMPS for one simple reason.
"It's mainly a matter of economics," Boman said. "If you look across the ag sector's commodities, there have been some tough times in all the different areas. For example, last year we had freezes in South Florida that affected vegetable growers, citrus growers, and strawberry and blueberry growers. So, for a lot of farmers, it's just a matter of money."
In the past, one effective catalyst for BMP adoption was cost-share funding from the state. But since 2008, that money has largely dried up.
One current source of cost-share money is the USDA-funded Natural Resources Conservation Service's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Hall said. The state has a working committee that allocates available funding based on need and qualification — and a farmer's willingness to sign a notice of intent to complete BMP implementation by a specific date.
But even with funding, the other challenge IFAS and FFB face is open communication with and education of growers and ranchers.
"One thing about agriculture is that you're competing with your neighbor across the road," Boman said. "That's just the way it is when you're both growing tomatoes or some other crop. So, growers keep their business kind of close to the vest."
As a result, IFAS and its two main allies typically develop one-on-one relationships with individual farmers and nurture their cooperation in adopting BMPs.
"We explain the program and look at their operations and make recommendations about where they can make improvements," Boman said. "And that is quite effective. But it's also a numbers game. There are thousands of farmers and only a few of us doing that kind of work."
To reach a wider audience, IFAS, FFB and the state sometimes host public educational meetings. For example, the current focus is on a series of seminars for equine operators.
The good news, Boman said, is that a large majority of farmers and ranchers that are exposed to the BMP program decide to sign up because they see their value.
A textbook example of a major success has been the Suwanee River Partnership in northern Florida, a broad-based alliance of agencies, farmers and environmental organizations that has significantly raised the bar on BMP adoption and compliance.
"That's a very successful example of a partnership with FFB, in terms of recognizing excellence in farming and stewardship of the environment," Boman said. "And it covers a wide range of crops, from vegetables to cotton."
Since 2001, FFB has provided high-profile recognition via its County Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship initiative, which allows participating farmers to display a prominent CARES road sign alongside their operations once their compliance has been officially sanctioned by the Office of Agricultural Water Policy.
Over the past decade, FFB has awarded more than 500 CARES signs, Hall said.
They are powerful symbols of a clear, underlying message, Boman said.
"BMPs are important because they are the right thing to do," he said. "I don't know of any farmers that are in it for the short term. Farms are passed down from generation to generation. So, it's the right thing to do a good job of protecting the environment and your farm so there is a future, not just for your farm, but for the whole state."
For more information on the BMP program, visit www.FloridaAgWaterPolicy.com/BestManagementPractices.html.