Blue-Green Algae Task Force reviews Agriculture BMPs

Posted 6/5/24

Agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) were reviewed at the Blue-Green Algae Task Force June 4 meeting.

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Blue-Green Algae Task Force reviews Agriculture BMPs


Agricultural Best Management Practices (BMPs) were reviewed at the Blue-Green Algae Task Force June 4 meeting.

West Gregory, director of the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services Office of Agricultural Water Policy, said FDACS has the responsibility to protect water supply while promoting agriculture.

He said BMPs are designed to improve water quality, conserve water and protect water resources.

Practices like precision fertilization ensure the nutrients go to the plants, using the most efficient manner possible, and that nutrients do not run off into waterways, he explained.

BMPs are required in areas with a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), Gregory continued.

BMPs were developed by Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and FDACS. FDEP identifies water bodies at risk and determines the maximum nutrient load allowed (TMDL). FDACS develops practices that will help reduce the nutrient load in runoff.

Currently there are 10 BMP manuals, he said. If you are a producer and you are in a BMAP, you are required to follow the manual for your commodity, he said.

FDEP works with FDACS to verify the BMPs are working and make changes if needed.

Gregory said farmers have the choice to enroll in the BMP program or have water quality monitoring to ensure runoff from their property meets the water quality standards.

He said FDACS inspects producers under BMPs every two years to make sure the practices have been followed.

“If someone is in a BMAP and not enrolled, we try to contact them several times. If they are not enrolled, they are referred to FDEP for compliance,” he said.

FDACS helps producers with a cost-share program to implement the BMPs. “That can be helping them put in water control structures,” he said. In some cases, FDACS helps the producer purchase equipment.

One current goal of the program is to spread awareness.

“I have been to a lot of producers, a lot of farms out there, and frankly they are doing a lot,” said Gregory. Farmers care deeply about the environment, he said. “Their livelihood is directly tied to it.”

Contrary to the false narrative that often circulates online, farmers really want to help, he said. They want to do the right thing for the environment.

“We have 22 million people in the state of Florida, and have about 13,000 producers signed up for BMPs,” Gregory continued. FDACS can’t take 22 million people to the farms to see the BMPs in action, he said. They have started producing annual reports to show the progress.

Another goal is to increase enrollment.

“We have 82% of irrigated lands enrolled, and 61% of all ag lands enrolled,” he said. “There is obviously room for improvement."

Historically the program targeted big lands and irrigated lands, he explained. Those producers have the biggest impact in relation to nutrients.

“What we are left with is many smaller acreages out there and we are left with trying to understand who is doing agriculture,” Gregory said.

He said they developed a data set using the acres classified as agriculture on the tax rolls and the irrigation records.

“We need to go out and look at each individual parcel and determine whether that person or operation is involved in agriculture and whether they should be enrolled,” he said.

“We have a little over 50,000 parcels in the category of one to 25 acres,” he said. “That’s a large workload to try to go out and enroll them.”

He said FDACS has hired an accounting firm whose representatives are verifying property ownership and verifying that lands are actually being used for agriculture. They started this project in the Indian River Lagoon Area where BMP enrollment levels were low.

“In just one month, we have enrolled 87 new producers in the area,” he said. “We’ve nearly doubled our numbers in that area in a month.”

Another big effort is to update the BMP manuals. There are ten different manuals, some are as long as 80 to 90 pages:

  • Cow/calf operations,
  • Citrus,
  • Fruit and Nut Crops,
  • Nurseries,
  • Vegetable and Agronomic Crops,
  • Dairy Operations,
  • Equine Operations,
  • Poultry Operations,
  • Sod, and
  • State Imperiled Species.

“We’ve done a lot of research since they were last adopted (in 2016),” he explained.

The updates will make it easier to determine if practices are working, he said. They will also shorten the manuals, eliminating information on practices that do not deal with water quality.

“We’re marrying the narrative to the checklist,” he said. “The checklist is what is expected of the producer.”

A new manual will also cover small farms which might have one cow and some row crops or citrus trees and some goats, he said.

Historically, fertilizer rate research has been done on small plots, said Dr. Michael Dukes with University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services (IFAS). Many of this research is decades old.

The Floridan Aquifer Collaborative Engagement for Sustainability project is a five-year $5 million project that includes BMP research on farms, computer modeling, stakeholder engagement and in-service training programs.

Farmers can’t manage crops for fertilizer rate alone, he explained. “All the decisions you have to make to grow a crop, it’s not just fertilizer rate.”

Dukes said new AI technology could make a big difference in the efficiency of farming and protecting water quality. “I think it’s going to pay dividends that we can’t even imagine,” he said.

“Technology is going to get better,” said Dr. James Sullivan of Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch, one of the task force members. He said it may take a while to determine which practices work best.

Task force members recommended investing more money in the cost share programs to encourage more property owners to participate.

In the Lake Okeechobee watershed, “90% of the (nutrient) loading takes place in the top 10% of the flow events,” said Ernie Barnett, executive director of the Florida Land Council during the public comment period. “Regardless of what BMPs you have in place, stormwater management systems, septic tanks, wastewater treatment plants, they’re all failing – what I call chaos on the landscape.

“That time in which the loading events are taking place is critically important,” he said.

“Nobody ever expected when we started this in the mid-90s through the 2000s that BMPs by themselves would reach the TMDLs,” Barnett said.  He said the research being done at the universities is important, but even with improved BMPs, regional and sub-regional projects will be needed.

He said looking in areas with long implementation of BMPs, there have been positive trends in improvement in water quality, “maybe not as fast as we want them to be, but positive trends in reducing nutrients at the source.”

He said BMPs in the Everglades has shown about 58% nutrient reduction for about 30 years in a row, but the hydrology of that system is unique. “You are not going to get that in other basins,” he added.

He encouraged the task force to support regional projects to clean water. “It’s not treating just agricultural runoff. It’s treating everything in the basin,” he said.

“It always seems to be the farmer who is blamed for too much nitrogen or phosphorus and also the septic tanks,” said Mary Hollingsworth. “I would like to include the phosphate mines included.”

She said those producing or spreading biosolids should also be monitored.

“Whatever is going on with BMPs, they’re not getting us to the goals that we had,” said Paul Gray of Audubon Florida. He said the BMPs need changes. “Right now, in one BMP if you fertilize and it rains a lot and washes all the nutrients into the receiving water body, you can fertilize again. We would argue that’s not a BMP. The BMP would be don’t fertilize before it rains.”

He added that BMPs currently allow water to be sprayed into the air for irrigation. He said they should be using drip line, with a cost share for the drip lines if needed.

Best Management Practices, farming, blue-green algae