Farmers and ranchers are doing their part to improve water quality in the Lake Okeechobee Basin, according to information shared during the Lake Okeechobee Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) annual meeting on June 2.
Best Management Practices (BMPs), based on the best available science and technology, help farmers protect the environment, explained Jennifer Thera of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).
The online meeting included representatives from FDACS, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
Thera said 85% of the land identified as agricultural in the Lake Okeechobee Basin has been enrolled in BMPs which balance agricultural production with water resource protection. Some of the remaining land was misidentified as agriculture. There are parcels initially identified as agriculture, but it is uncertain if there is ag activity enrollable in BMPs, she explained.
BMPs include procedures such as soil and leaf testing to determine how much and what type of fertilizer is needed; drip irrigation systems to conserve water; and, using buffers, setbacks and swales to reduce runoff.
About 47% of the land in the Lake Okeechobee BMAP area – which includes Glades, Hendry Highlands, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola Palm Beach and Polk counties – is in agriculture.
Of the 1,834,800 acres in agriculture, 1,561,494 acres have been enrolled in BMP programs.
FDACS has visited 93% of the properties enrolled in the BMP programs in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed and verified they are following the required procedures to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen in runoff. They have also verified the farmers and ranchers are maintaining the required records on fertilizer use.
Of the 273,306 acres remaining, some parcels are state land. Some are in uses, such as timber, which come under different management programs. Some parcels have been identified as agriculture zoning but there are no agriculture operations on the property.
That leaves about 55,054 acres still possibly enrollable in BMPs, she continued. FDACS has identified about 160 parcels that are less than one acre in this group. Many others are homestead properties of less than 10 acres, and the property owners did not know they were supposed to enroll in the BMP programs.
Thera said they prioritize the larger parcels and have been successful in getting most of the larger agriculture properties into compliance.
When FDACS identifies parcels that are agricultural and are out of compliance, they refer them to FDEP, said David Frady of FDEP.
He said property owners are given a choice between enrolling in BMPs or a water quality monitoring program. So far, no one has chosen the water quality monitoring, he added.
Frady said it can be difficult to contact some property owners because land sales may not yet have been recorded with a county property appraiser’s office. In other cases, the property owners may be out of state or even out of the country and the land may be leased to someone else.
“The overwhelming majority of these folks are people who have a little bit of land and a home, and they have a couple of cows or sheep and a goat in the backyard,” he continued. The bulk of these folks don’t consider themselves agricultural producers.
He said when FDEP explains they are subject to the law and required to enroll in the BMP programs, most are complaint.
“We get two-thirds of the noncompliant into compliance after first letter,” he said. If they ignore first letter, FDEP sends a second letter that legal action in civil court will be taken if they don’t comply.
“Through these efforts, we’ve brought the overall majority of producers into compliance without civil action,” Frady said.
When FDEP representatives explain how BMPs work, how it helps the environment and how it saves them money, most people are willing to enroll, he continued.
“If they refuse, we start building a case file for civil action.”
Frady said they prioritize their efforts by the size of the properties, focusing on the largest properties first.
“We’ve brought more than 83% of total acres into compliance,” he said. All of the properties now out of compliance are less than 100 acres each. The majority of remaining properties are less than 10 acres each. These are property owner who applied for agriculture status in order to save money on property taxes, he explained.
“Some just put a gate between the neighbor’s property and theirs and let the neighbor’s cows come in and out. In some counties, that will qualify for agriculture tax status,” Frady said.
All properties currently out of compliance are less than 100 acres each, most are less than 10 acres.
“We’re down to homesteads now,” said Frady. “The ones that remain (out of compliance with BMPs) are largely low intensity hobby farms.”
According to FDEP, the BMPs are working and reducing the phosphorus and nitrogen in runoff.