Farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), south of Lake Okeechobee, are once again recognized as successful partners with the State of Florida in providing clean water for Everglades restoration.
At their Aug. 17 meeting of the the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) it was announced that EAA farmers achieved water-quality goals for the Everglades with a 63% phosphorus reduction in Water Year 2023, more than double the 25% reduction goal in the Everglades Forever Act.
“EAA farmers are proud to be partners in preserving and restoring the River of Grass by sending clean water to the Everglades through our innovative Best Management Practices program,” said Keith Wedgworth of Wedgworth Farms. “Year after year, we strive to go above and beyond to take great care of our water and soil so that we can continue to stock America’s grocery stores and dinner tables with fresh, wholesome food for generations to come.”
Data also showed that water flowing south from the EAA farming basin was demonstrably cleaner than water from Lake Okeechobee. The crops absorb phosphorus from the water.
“As farmers, our legacy is our land, and our legacy may only be continued tomorrow because of the care and respect we show to our land and water today,” said Eric Hopkins of Hundley Farms. “That’s why for more than 25 years, integrating environmentally sustainable practices has remained a top priority to us, and the reason EAA farmers set the bar high for our environmental goals.”
“Restoring America’s Everglades involves all stakeholders who live, work and play in the South Florida Region,” the SFWMD wrote to EAA landowners in the agency’s annual letter. “Thank you for your continued contributions toward making the BMP program a success, as it is vital to the restoration and protection of the Everglades.”
The SFWMD also said performance requirements have been met each year since 1996 with an average long-term phosphorus reduction of 57%.
Nationally recognized for its success Everglades restoration, the EAA Best Management Practices program is implemented by EAA farmers at their own expense. EAA farmers meet and far exceed the strictest water-quality standards in the United States, in addition to paying a one-of-a-kind Agriculture Privilege tax of $25-per-acre that funds Everglades restoration projects – a tax that is unique to EAA farmers, as no other farmer in America pays a special tax to supply homegrown food.
“Despite the challenges farmers face daily including storms, heat, and an occasional drought, they have once again achieved remarkable results by exceeding some of the most stringent water quality standards in the country,” said Ryan Duffy, Director of Corporate Communications for U.S. Sugar. “With nearly 30 years of data showing significant progress, it’s clear that farmers in the EAA have done more to improve water quality in South Florida than any other private group in state history.”
To date, EAA farmers have removed 4,537 metric tons of phosphorus in the water flowing south from their farms. In the past year, water quality monitors registered phosphorus levels from Lake Okeechobee to EAA farms at 190 ppb while phosphorus in water leaving EAA farms was at 118 ppb.
“Farmers continue to lead the way in cleaning Florida’s water while sustainably growing food for our nation,” said Ardis Hammock, spokeswoman for Florida Sugarcane Farmers. “We are so thankful to be able to remain reliable stewards of our air, water and land resources while also helping to feed millions of American families every year.”
Farmers use science-based Best Management Practices (BMPs) on farms to reduce phosphorus in water before it leaves the EAA. Working with scientists at the University of Florida, the BMPs are soil and water cleansing techniques designed to trap sediment before it leaves farmlands. Techniques include using advanced GPS and lasers to level fields, using foliage on ditch banks to trap windborne sediment and stop erosion, as well as carefully managed pumping practices to keep more water on farms. The EAA maintains the most sophisticated farming monitoring network for soil, water and air quality in the entire United States.
“Seven of the last ten years, EAA farmers have reduced phosphorus by more than 60 percent,” said Camber Pope of Pope Farms., “This is terrific progress by any measure and far more clean up success than any other projects have managed thus far.”
Florida Sugarcane Farmers provide $4.7 billion per year to Florida’s economy, employing 19,201 Floridians. On many farms, dozens of fresh fruits and vegetables along with rice, herbs and spices are grown in rotation with sugarcane.