Florida farmers, ranchers, foresters gather post-Hurricane Ian to continue climate-smart work

December 15, 2022

Not quite three months after Hurricane Ian made landfall on the southwest coast of Florida, farmers, ranchers, forest landowners and agricultural supporters from across the state have gathered in Gainesville this week to continue discussions on how to improve resiliency on their land and operations.

Hurricanes, like Ian, are not new to agricultural producers in Florida, but the Category 4 storm serves as tangible, recent reminder of why the farmer-led Florida Climate Smart Agriculture group’s work is so important.

The initiative was launched in 2018 with the recognition that Florida agriculture was undergoing transformational change. Florida’s population continues to rapidly expand, leading to the development and fragmentation of productive agricultural lands. At the same time, there are labor shortages, increasing operating costs and trade imbalances—and changing climatic conditions that compound all these issues.

The working group was organized with funding from the Turner, VoLo and Energy Foundations, supplemented with contributions from farm and forestry organizations in the state, and support from Solutions from the Land in collaboration with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Hurricane Ian Recovery

Since yesterday was the first day FLCSA leaders had been able to meet in person since Hurricane Ian in late September, the storm and recovery efforts were a major topic of conversation.

No agricultural sector in Florida was spared.

High winds and heavy precipitation decimated Florida’s citrus orchards, which are concentrated in the hardest-hit, southwest region of the state. The storm slammed orange producers who were already down, as it coincided with the start of a harvest already anticipated to be 32% less than last season, due in part to ongoing issues with citrus greening disease.  

The hurricane also disrupted fall planting for other fruit and vegetable growers, whose primary products include fresh tomatoes, strawberries, bell peppers, melons and potatoes. And, of the nearly 5 million acres of agricultural lands affected by the hurricane, about 60% were grazing lands.

Ranchers were hard hit with downed trees breaching fences and infrastructure assets accumulated over generations lost to the storm. Damage was also done to nurseries and row crop fields, affecting sugarcane, cotton, peanut and corn production, and to aquaculture, to dairies, to bees, and more.

Crop losses alone are estimated at between $686.8 million and $1.25 billion, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. When agricultural infrastructure and other production losses are counted, the estimate is up to $1.89 billion. 

During conversations among each other, FLCSA members shared what they have learned, as individuals, from this and other hurricanes, and what can be done as the need to adapt and build resiliency grows increasingly urgent.

Solutions With Ecosystem Services

Long before Hurricane Ian, FLCSA leaders have believed one of the best ways to improve resiliency on agricultural lands is by building soil health and capacity to deliver ecosystem services—carbon sequestration, pollinator habitat and biodiversity, water filtration and storage, and other essential services good for both the land and farmer as well as for the public.

Conversations on the importance of ecosystem services are gaining ground globally, particularly this week with talks on biodiversity at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference hosted in Montreal, Canada. Farmers and ranchers, too, recognize land is healthier and more productive—thus more resilient after, for example, flooding from a hurricane—when it is more biodiverse, or host to a variety of plant and animal species.

The Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group has done significant work with University of Florida on developing an AI-driven ecosystem service monitoring network that can help policymakers and those who manage natural resources make climate-smart decisions.

The idea is a system that easily and efficiently quantifies and maps ecosystem services provided by managed lands across the state would inform producers and policymakers about how agriculture can contribute to climate-smart objectives. It would also allow economists to better assign value to these ecosystem services, creating opportunity for farmers to receive payment for the essential services—beyond food and products—they provide to society.

At a time when operating costs and the need for climate-smart production are so high, it makes sense to monetize ecosystem services, enabling and incentivizing farmers and ranchers to make investments and changes in practices that could be economically risky short-term but beneficial in many ways for everyone, on and off the farm, long-term. This point was validated by the producers who spoke at the FLCSA forum.

Circular Systems

The Florida leaders are also working on an agriculture-friendly solar initiative and a joint effort between farmers/ranchers and aquatic ecosystem stakeholders to improve water quality on the farm and into the Gulf Coast bay areas.

The leaders also had the opportunity to take notes from the Midwest, which deals with different but relatable water and economic challenges.

The Iowa Smart Agriculture Work Group, co-led by Ray Gaesser, an Iowa corn and soybean farmer, describes circular systems as a way to build resiliency in the face of volatile markets, supply chain issues, and water quantity and quality issues. Gaesser shared with the Florida farmers IASA’s approach and vision for Iowa agriculture’s future, as published in IASA’s recent report, “Iowa Smart Agriculture: Circles of Life, A Vision for the Future.”

Circular systems “make, use, retain value and reuse,” on and off the farm, to improve resilience. Products once considered waste (like manure) is used in a way that reduces the need to purchase inputs (such as synthetic fertilizer) or can become another income-generation product (like when excess farm-generated fertilizer can be sold to neighbors).

Farmers at the Center

We are pleased to see farmers, ranchers and forest landowners across states working together to share ideas and encourage one another in the important work of planning for the future of agriculture and land stewardship. It is paramount that farmers be at the center of any and all of this planning, as they know best what works and what needs more research.

We’re also glad to see Florida farmers filled with hope as they continue to walk the long road to recovery after Hurricane Ian. They are resilient, and they are proactively moving toward even greater resilience to help them stand strong after the next storm.

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