Florida’s Healthy Farms, Healthy Bays project aims to foster farmer-fishermen collaboration for cleaner water

January 4, 2023

As the new year begins, Solutions from the Land is gearing up to continue its mission to inspire, mobilize and equip agricultural leaders to advance pragmatic, proven and innovative agricultural solutions that benefit producers, the public and the planet.

Specifically, in 2023, SfL will focus on three of the many areas in which farmers and ranchers are finding exciting land-based solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. SfL’s priorities this year are water, biodiversity, and food and nutrition security.

Water is essential for life everywhere, but this truth is especially evident to those living in coastal regions.

Take Florida, for example. The Sunshine State does not face a shortage of water, or “Florida gold,” as Randall Dasher, an inland Florida farmer calls it. The concern, instead, is water quality. And the issue keeps coastal farmer and restaurateur Ed Chiles up at night.

Fishermen and others, like Chiles, whose water-front restaurants serve clams and other seafood along with the produce he grows at Gamble Creek Farms, have seen algal blooms suffocate the aquatic ecosystem they depend upon. These algal blooms grow from excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) that have entered the water from upstream and inland sources.

“Many people don’t realize that the single largest point source for nutrient loading in our coastal waters is inadequate water treatment systems,” Chiles says. “Counties and cities have a vital role to play here. Developers, farmers, ranchers, business owners and homeowners also have a significant role to play, if we are to maintain the quality of life we have grown up with. We owe our grandchildren and future generations nothing less.”

Chiles and Dasher co-chair the Healthy Farms, Healthy Bays Initiative, a project of the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Work Group funded by a $100,000 grant from the VoLo Foundation. The project is an example of an SfL-supported farmer-led, science-driven collaboration that aims to create positive outcomes for water.

The project will connect upland farmers and ranchers with downstream aquatic ecosystem stakeholders in an effort to enhance sustainability of agricultural operations and improve water quality, fisheries and habitat in key Gulf Coast bays and estuaries. They’ll start with the Suwannee River watershed, where Dasher’s family has farmed since 1948.

Dasher has grown various row crops, including small grains and peanuts, on Dasher Farm in Suwannee County, and today focuses on greenhouse vegetable production and his seed processing business. His management has enabled him to increase soil organic matter, which improves water cycling and overall soil health.

Dasher notes that urban development has brought a population boom in his area, and in much of the state. The number of acres farmed in Suwannee County was down by 12% in the most recent Ag Census, from 2017, compared to 2012. However, he has also noticed a resurgence in corn production, thanks to pivot irrigation and precision agronomy technology that enables farmers to optimize nutrient applications. The county also has significant poultry and egg production (No. 1 state-wide) and overall livestock production (No. 2), including dairy and beef cattle.

A component of the Healthy Farms-Healthy Bays Initiative will be helping farmers think about and experiment with tactics that reduce external inputs, close nutrient loops, regenerate soils while concurrently producing agricultural and food products, protecting and renewing ecosystems, and providing climate change solutions and other benefits to farmers and society.

As Dasher says, it makes sense to farmers to do anything they can to prevent nutrient leaching and any other contamination. Fertilizer and other inputs are expensive, and farmers want clean water, too. What’s needed is mutual understanding between upland and coastal people and scientific data to support a plan to achieve a future where healthy and productive bays, rivers and streams across the peninsula are underpinned and supported by a vibrant, sustainable agricultural economy. Just as farmers must use best practices in the use of fertilizers so as not to pollute upland and marine waters, so must homeowners who fertilizer their lawns, Chiles adds. 

“Let’s become friends and talk,” says Dasher, outlining his thoughts going into the initiative. “Let’s monitor things and find out what is causing you [on the coast] to have problems. Let’s see what we can do to help each other move forward.”

The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science will provide technical and research support. The initiative will also build on other existing restoration plans and projects, such as the nonprofit All Clams on Deck, which promotes the use of biological mitigation strategies around bivalves and seagrass restoration to promote coastal resiliency.

“We want to have the empirical evidence, the scientific data that show how you can improve the coastal environment,” Chiles says.

He says every other coastal region faces the same water quality issues, and he hopes the Healthy Farms-Healthy Bays Initiative may serve as a model for building community engagement and unity among upland and coastal stakeholders across the country and world.

Solutions from the Land applauds Florida’s leadership in forging an uncommon partnership that will collaborate to achieve win-win outcomes and prove that land-based solutions are for the ocean and the planet’s water, too. We look forward to seeing the science develop and farmers being incentivized to manage not just for production but for ecosystem services that benefit fishermen, those who enjoy seafood, and all of society. 

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