New Report Explores Future of Florida’s Agricultural Land

March 8, 2024

The University of Florida Center for Landscape Conservation Planning, in partnership with 1000 Friends of Florida, recently unveiled a groundbreaking report titled “Agriculture 2040/2070”. Expanding upon its predecessor, the Sea Level 2040/2070 study, this GIS-based analysis highlights impending challenges and opportunities within Florida agriculture.

In the report, researchers project a potential loss of up to 2.2 million acres of agricultural land over the coming decades. At a staggering pace of roughly 45,000 acres annually, this depletion threatens the very fabric of the state’s economy and societal well-being. As the report points out, the urgency to protect Florida’s agricultural land has never been more pressing.

“When you’re talking about protecting ag land, you’re not just talking about protecting the agricultural industry, you’re also talking about significant contributions to conservation in Florida,” says Vivian Young, Communications Director of 1000 Friends of Florida. “Ag lands play a tremendous role in protecting wildlife habitat, and conservation of landmark animals like panthers and black bears. Ag lands can also play a role in climate change resilience and flood control.”

With an increase in flooding due to storms or rising sea levels, rural lands and agricultural lands – not covered in “impervious surfaces” – can help store and cleanse the additional water while lessening flooding impacts. As the report states, “Approximately 3.4 million acres of Florida’s agricultural property is in floodplains.  About 36% – or 13 million acres – of Florida’s land is wetlands, with about 8.5% or more than a million acres of Florida’s wetlands on agricultural land. Wetlands provide multiple services including large-scale water storage and purification, flood control and cleansing of our drinking water.”  

Protecting green spaces from being paved over or built upon, can help keep Florida in their fight against climate change impacts and the overall quality of life and tourism.

Research Provides Tools for Policy Makers

Disagreements about regulation in land use planning and a lack of funding for conservation programs threaten the ability to protect vital agricultural landscapes. The “Agriculture 2040/2070” report can be a tool for Florida policymakers, developers and citizens alike as they navigate planning, development and conservation discussions.

Research is showcased in the “Agriculture 2040/2070” report through downloadable maps, a webinar, a 38-paged PDF and a PowerPoint presentation.

“Florida needs programs that are voluntary incentives based like easement and land conservation programs, where landowners are agreeing to work with the state or the federal government or local government to protect their properties,” says Dr. Tom Hoctor, Director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning at the University of Florida and Principal Investigator of the report. “But we also need to be smart about how Florida is growing. Part of that is potentially thinking about common sense policies that allow local communities to make smart planning decisions. … Those two approaches are complementary; we really need both.”

Smart planning would include redeveloping vacant buildings before developing untouched lands. A solution that would help strengthen communities as vacant and abandoned buildings can cause a decrease in surrounding property value, negative effects on physical and emotional health, and an increase in crime rates.

When it comes to landowners wanting to be a part of conservation programs, Dr. Hoctor explains there’s not a shortage of willing participants. Rather there was a 90% cut in state funding since 2008 to support such efforts. Though funding has increased to historic levels over the last three years (since 2021), there are hundreds of landowners waiting to place conservation or agricultural easements on their property. Currently, these growers represent millions of unprotected acres in Florida.

Under conservation easement and land conservation programs, the farmer remains responsible for the management of the land – such as controlling invasive species and plants – and will willingly put aside and conserve that portion of acreage from their normal operational uses.

“Now, if we could put enough money into our Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands Protection programs to help landowners protect their property, that would be better instead of running into situations where we have to say, ‘it was sold to the developer instead because we didn’t have enough money in our conservation land protection programs to get it protected,’” Dr. Hoctor says. “Because that’s what is happening. It’s already happened several times in the last 10 years where we lost really important properties.”

Funding for the programs ensures growers can enhance, restore or maintain eligible grazing land and wetlands. A benefit all Floridians and tourists will see over time through their water supply and food security as well as the protection of the wildlife that helps make the Sunshine State one of the most biodiverse states in the nation.   

Incorporating Farmer Voices

Florida Climate Smart Agriculture Co-Chair and Vice Chairman of the Florida Conservation Group and rancher, Jim Strickland provided his 60+ years of agriculture expertise to the team, serving as one of the group’s sounding boards. Strickland is owner of Strickland Ranch and managing partner of Big Red Cattle Company and Blackbeard’s Ranch – making up more than 4,500 acres of agricultural land in Florida.

“The county I happen to live in has three ranches,” Strickland says. “When they lose one percent of their acreage every year – starting at let’s say 220,000 acres in agriculture – they lose 2,000 to 3,000 acres of land to development just in this one county. Once you see that number. You know, that’s kind of a shocking number.”

Florida is the birthplace of the cattle industry in the United States and home to a variety of

attractions such as Daytona 500, Tampa Bay, notable theme parks and more. “We’ve got it all” in Florida, Strickland adds.

“We had the first cattle ever landed in North America about 30 miles south of where I’m sitting right now,” Strickland says. “We’ve never seen a bulldozer bulldozing down houses to put a cattle ranch in, so we know the growth is going to come from timber, agriculture and ranch lands.”

He hopes the research can help strike a balance between protecting agricultural acreage and considering “future generations” when developing the land further.

“I don’t think anybody out there is fighting to stop development,” Strickland says. “Let’s look out for our children and our grandchildren. But let’s also look out for the natural flora and fauna that we love here in Florida. Let’s not see it disappear.”

Solutions to Be Considered

While the “Agriculture 2040/2070” report projects potentially disruptive agricultural land loss throughout the state, as Young, Strickland and Dr. Hoctor explain these concerns can be prevented. To protect vital agricultural land throughout the state, the report suggests Florida citizens and politicians consider:

  • Funding the Florida Forever and Rural and Family Lands Protection programs to mitigate further land loss. Funding helps purchase the development rights for the land, but farmers still pay the taxes and oversee the conservation efforts.  
  • Developing and implementing community planning strategies to promote the protection of priority lands and minimize fragmentation. Dr. Hoctor explains Florida citizens can assist in this solution by voting for candidates that support land conservation, attending public planning meetings and reaching out to elected officials to let them know agricultural lands are worth protecting.
  • Continuing research to identify and map out critical lands and water systems to protect, monitor and assess the impacts of further development on our ecosystems and water supply. As Strickland reminds Floridians and visitors, once we build or pave over the land we eliminate natural aquifer recharge, storage and recovery processes. Water beneath green spaces can be pumped out of the ground contributing to Florida’s water supply.
  • Creating market-based solutions to incentivize the protection of ecosystem services can ensure the long-term viability of protecting the land. Conservation easements are legal agreements between landowners and government agencies where the landowner agrees to limit certain uses of their property to protect its conservation values. In exchange, the landowner may receive financial compensation, tax benefits or other incentives. Other market-based solutions can include carbon sequestration, water storage and storm protection.

Together Florida policymakers, developers and citizens can make a positive difference in the future of the state overall.

“For existing and future needs, there is a good chance that as we continue to move through this century, we will be more dependent on local produce, and local agricultural commodities, not less dependent on those resources,” Dr. Hoctor concludes. “So, everything we can do to protect the state’s agricultural land, makes it more likely that Florida is going to continue to make a healthy economy and a healthy environment for everybody who lives here and comes to visit.”

Learn more about the “Agriculture 2040/2070” report, by visiting the 1000 Friends of Florida website.

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