When much of the nation is shivering in midwinter, millions of strawberries are ripe and ready for picking in west Central Florida fields.

But the region’s nearly 10,000 acres of red berries are vulnerable to frost and the occasional freezes that dip into the state, forcing growers to crank up their well pumps and create natural “antifreeze” protection in the form of a thin layer of ice on the plants.

Now the Southwest Florida Water Management District is working with strawberry growers in the Dover/Plant City area to try to trim the amount of water used for cold protection as well as for year-round crop production, with more efficient systems, greater reliance on surface water and recycled water.

Strawberry growers adopt water savings to avert sinkholes

Reducing groundwater pumping is essential to the long-term survival of farming in the region, experts say, because highvolume pumping during freezes drains the aquifer so fast that sinkholes form and shallow wells dry up.

An 11-day stretch of freezing weather in January 2010 created so much demand for groundwater that more than 140 sinkholes and 750 dry wells were reported in the region. In some areas, the water level in the underground limestone aquifer fell by as much as 60 feet.

To try to prevent a repeat, the water management district has established a 256-square-mile water-use caution area.

It also adopted new rules in 2011 for existing and future permit holders growing crops that require frost/freeze protection.

Five strawberry farms in the Dover/Plant City area were among the first approved in 2011 to participate in a cost-sharing program with the water management district.

The goal was to jump-start efforts in reducing groundwater pumping across eastern Hillsborough County.

“We felt this was a good way to incentivize farms to begin implementing alternatives,” says Robyn Felix, water management district communications manager in Brooksville.

The cost-sharing program, called FARMS—Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems—is funded by the Southwest water district board and, in this case, the Alafia River Basin Board.

District engineers estimate that groundwater withdrawals by the five participating farms alone could drop by 550,000 gallons per day and by 18 million gallons daily during winter freeze protection if all of the best management practices are implemented.

Water savings add up

More than a dozen other berry farms in the Dover/Plant City water-use caution area have since signed voluntary contractual agreements to participate, potentially offsetting another 14 million gallons of groundwater use per day.

That would mean a total savings of more than 32 million gallons per day. Much more work remains, because the ambitious, overall goal of the program is to offset 180 million gallons per day per freeze event in the Dover/Plant City Water Use Caution Area, by the year 2020, Felix says.

One of the strawberry farms to sign on as cost-share program participant in 2011, Sewell Farms, is investing $152,292 for 25-acres of row covers, surface-water irrigation and tailwater recovery improvements at its 70-acre strawberry farm.

The district will reimburse up to $92,480 of that, to save an average of 88,400 gallons of groundwater per day and 4.1 million gallons for frost/ freeze protection.

Berry grower Mark Sewell says he hopes his family-owned farm won’t be tested by a severe freeze this winter. But the early results of his transition from relying on groundwater to drip-irrigation with recycled water during the growing season appear promising.

“I did spend extra for a better filtration system,” he says, to remove more sand and particulates from the surface water. “But so far we haven’t had any major problems.”

Tailwater recovery, which involves collecting surface runoff in ponds or underground tile drainage to reduce the need for groundwater, can sometimes boost salinity levels in areas where saltwater intrusion is a problem.

Excess salinity can damage plants and reduce crop yields, but Sewell says his own farm has not had any salinity problems.

Other industry specialists in the region say that while government “paperwork delays” have slowed some of the projects, progress is being made.

“We’re off to a good start,” says Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

Not every farm will be able to participate in the cost-sharing program for financial and other reasons, he says. But for those that are able to do so, the resulting water savings add up, benefiting the public as well as growers.

Farms invest for future

Sizemore Farms, which packs strawberries under the Florida Supreme label, has the largest project underway in the Dover/Plant City area, spending about $540,000 for new pumps, piping, a weather station, culverts, filtration and tailwater recovery tile system. The water district has pledged to reimburse up to $395,182 of that to reduce groundwater withdrawals at Sizemore’s 242-acre English Creek farm by an average of 146,190 gallons per day, according to SWFWMD reports.

Astin Farms is investing $484,307 for surface water irrigation and tailwater recovery at its 526-acre South Farm and 19-acre Karpee Road farm, and will be reimbursed up to $263,240. Astin is projected to cut groundwater withdrawals by an average of 156,600 gallons per day and 9.4 million gallons for frost/freeze protection.

San-Way Farms is installing an irrigation reservoir and tailwater recovery for its 70-acre strawberry farm, at a cost of about $334,183, with up to $165,868 to be reimbursed by the district. Savings are projected to be 96,740 gallons per day and 4.4 million for frost/freeze protection.

Sewell Farms is investing $152,292 for 25-acres of row covers and surface-water irrigation and tailwater recovery for its 70-acres of strawberries. The district will contribute up to $92,480 for that, to save 88,400 gallons per day and 4.1 million gallons for frost/freeze protection.

Sydney Farms is spending $390,360 for surface irrigation and tailwater recovery at its 111-acre Donini strawberry farm. In return, the district pledged to reimburse up to $110,500 of that and projects average daily water savings of 64,450 gallons, and 374,000 gallons for freeze protection.

There are no guarantees that state and water-management district funding will be available in the coming years for every farm that would like to apply for cost-sharing money.

But as budgetary challenges intensify, Campbell says he is optimistic that groundwater-use reduction goals of 20 percent can be met.

It’s vital, he says, for growers well as their neighbors who all rely on groundwater to one degree or another.

“If we get a little help from Mother Nature,” he says, “we’ll do just fine.”

Learn more about the Southwest Florida Water Management District's FARMS cost-share program by clicking here.