The Reality of Agriculture and Water Quality in South Florida
It is not uncommon for agriculture to make negative headlines in the media. In fact, it’s not hard for this to happen to anyone, especially in the field of science communication.
Science is hard. It’s complicated, and there are a lot of gray areas. And as a newcomer to Florida, I wanted to know how much merit alarmist media headlines have in this region, especially when those headlines point the finger at farmers. Crimson Tide? Lake Okeechobee? Is “big sugar” or “big dairy” really to blame? What are the facts versus the myths? And is the water quality really as bad as they claim in South Florida?
Fortunately, there is some very good research coming out of the area when it comes to soil health, water quality, best management practices, and environmental protection in general.
The ‘red tide’ – the name given to the uncontrolled growth of algae along the coast – actually predates the region’s farmers and, according to government data, there is no evidence that agriculture was the cause of the red tide. . It is natural and does not come from farms. For more information on this, check out expert research from the Mote Marine Laboratory.
Sometimes water from South Florida sugar farms near Clewiston is claimed to damage Lake Okeechobee, which has been theorized as a source of red binding. But that’s not even possible since the water flows south, not north. The majority of Lake O’s pollution comes from the Orlando area, where Disney and so many other industries north of the lake operate.
You can scroll through the Instagram images below to see breakdowns of a lot of this information:
The Everglades Agricultural Zone, an area of over 1,100 square miles of South Florida farmland, is undoubtedly a delicate ecosystem, which is why the Everglades Forever Act began in 1994. Farmers reduced phosphorus by 55% on average each year since these programs were put in place — just one example of environmental improvement. Other programs for farmers include best management practices (BMPs) such as the “4 Rs” of nutrient stewardship: right source, right rate, right time, right place.
New technologies and slow release fertilizers have also helped reduce and improve nutrient management in the area of fertilizer application.
There are a ton of regulations imposed on farms to protect Florida’s water, and they’re on a points-scored system with incentives for doing the right thing. Hundreds of thousands of hectares with tens of thousands of samples collected, monitored 365 days a year… water is serious business here.
Farmers also do GPS-based land leveling to prevent erosion and record what they use, when and where. The use of fertilizers and water pumps is a public record and can be audited. Other industry and consumer uses are unregulated while on-farm record keeping is taken very seriously.
The media loves selling scaremongering headlines as usual. But if you dig deeper with the experts, you learn that a lot of the negative press within agriculture is unwarranted. Water is complicated, and there are currently 67 federally funded projects in South Florida alone to balance competing interests and help the environment. Florida is home to hundreds of millions of residents and tourists (most of whom are near sea level and they all hunt!), but it’s easy to put a target on farmers because the majority of City dwellers don’t really realize how strict the regulations are for them.
And, of course, it also comes down to politics. The promoters want this land and agriculture does not want to give it up. It’s complicated with many gray areas, but I highly recommend the resources listed below and ask them questions! They are an open book eager to share their story.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is a farmer, speaker and writer who has worked for years with row crops, beef cattle and sheep. She believes education is key to bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.