By Steve Heisler

A push toward sustainable agriculture through a shared vision of how best to use Florida land is one of the main initiatives of an organization that has flown under the radar of many in the farming community.

The Florida Earth Foundation began as an outreach program on Everglades restoration at the University of Florida 10 years ago. Founder Stan Bronson, now its executive director, shepherded its growth as it became independent of the university in 2004 while maintaining its focus on bringing people together to discuss conservation issues.

Roundtables Create New Thought

In late January, that effort included a series of roundtable discussions in Clewiston and Maitland. Agricultural and state officials gathered to discuss land use and creative ways to incentivize conservation.

“There needs to be some incentives that could be developed for the private sector to do conservation on their own,” Bronson says. “‘Eco-system services’ is the new catchphrase out there, and how do you incentivize?”

Previous outreach efforts to the agricultural community included roundtables with Florida Forestry and Florida Cattlemen. The gathering through Florida Citrus Mutual at Clewiston’s Southern Gardens Citrus preceded one at Maitland’s Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association headquarters.

Attendees included Carey Soud, now a Clewiston banker but also a citrus grower whose family still owns 150 acres in Hendry County. Soud applauded the initial efforts to achieve sustainable agriculture.

“It’s the recognition that farmers are the best land managers and how can we help farmers sustain?” he says. “The discussions we had with Florida Earth was taking that ball and running with it.”

That’s especially true, Soud says, in this economic climate.

“Agricultural operations are all struggling to survive,” he says. “It’s nice to see some discussions about what alternatives the farmers may have.”

Those potential alternatives, issues like groundwater recharge so that additional income can be derived from property in a way that is viable with wildlife, are spelled out through several parallel programs.

“We want this to be private-sector driven,” says Bronson, the former chief operating officer of a 4,000-acre citrus company in Palm Beach County. “That’s why we want the agricultural guys to invent the incentives because they’ll invent those they’ll use.”

Creative Incentives Needed

It may be as simple as a ‘green’ payment program involving upfront cash for conservation practices in Hillsborough County, Bronson says. But more creative incentives need to be developed.

Florida Earth chairman Ernie Cox says agriculture is already making positive changes through its water usage. The use of plastics and drip irrigation for fertilizer retention among tomato and cucumber growers is a plus, he says.

Incentives that are clearly defined and do not require multiple copies to myriad agencies are best, says Cox, noting that the 2008 USDA Farm Bill included programs applicable to Florida after years of being oriented more toward large midwestern producers.

“Submit this form in triplicate, and 12 months from now we’ll let you know if you’re selected,” he says. “One thing we’re hearing loud and clear from the agricultural community is they don’t need any more paperwork.”

Developing incentives that don’t rely on strict regulations is another crucial element, Cox and others agreed.

Florida Fish and Wildlife officials completing the Conservation Blueprint Project approach its development the same way, as an online land development encyclopedia they hope to have finished by Feb. 18. Dr. Joe Walsh says identifying partner-based actions that would benefit growers and farmers are being developed.

“We’re looking at how local communities will keep agriculture in place because there’s some value to wildlife by having it in place,” he says. “Farming has a very important place in that it keeps open spaces available. If you take citrus, there’s a lot of wildlife that inhabit citrus at night when workers aren’t out there.”

Land on which tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries and lettuce are a common habitat, he says, for indigo snakes. Indigo snakes lost their natural habitat but adapted to farmland and help keep down populations of rodents and other snakes.

“There’s a strong reason to believe that is one species that has benefited from farming,” he says. “What we’re looking at is what will keep farming profitable in the long term so it will stay.”

New Income Streams Crucial

Walsh knows that developing new income streams for Florida farmers may be crucial to protecting all species.

“That’s what’s crushing agriculture in the U.S. is foreign competition, they’re being outcompeted by foreign sources of food,” he says. “They need an income stream, and if there’s a way for ecological services to be profitable for them, then they’d be willing to keep land open.”

As Walsh attended and spoke at the roundtable in Maitland, his associate Dr. Thomas Eason continues to play a large role in shaping the blueprint itself. A state conservation initiative coordinator, Eason stressed that the non-regulatory approach should be appreciated as much as a process than a specific outcome. Engaging as many as possible through roundtables and other discussions, such as a February Chamber of Commerce event in Daytona, is key as information is gathered, he says.

“There’s no blueprint or map yet, and that’s why we’re working with Florida Earth to find out what people need for it to be a success,” Eason says. “It’s meant to be a unifying vision people can look at and work from.”

Part of that effort includes developing a map with possible linked incentives that shows Florida’s conservation areas. Part of an effort to identify critical lands and waters, it breaks down how agricultural lands fall out in relation to conservation lands, Eason says. It shows massive acreages of pine and forest land in north Florida and the large central and south Florida acreage devoted to citrus and ranching.

Rick Roth, vice president of the Florida Farm Bureau, spoke during the Florida Earth Foundation’s Ag Module held the last week of October. The Foundation is holding roundtables to find out what incentives are necessary to convince farmers to participate in conservation measures.

“That current land use is compatible to conservation,” Eason says. “Working landscapes are an integral part of the land use.”

The next challenge, he says, is to create multiple layers of incentives so that farmers and growers can make money from their land in a way that works with wildlife co-existing there. Florida’s Amendment 4 is one example he cited of how complete tax relief can be given to landowners who take part in conservation efforts.

A Collaborative Effort

To Eason, stereotypes of Florida as overpopulated with improper land management are not part of his vision. Through the Conservation Commission’s work with the Century Commission and the Farm Bureau, he says creating a state that encourages profitability and wildlife to flourish is possible.

“We’ve worked hard to make this a collaborative effort,” he says. “If we can envision a positive future that includes the land we should conserve then we can create that. Let’s create the vision we want and then we can work to make that happen.”

The New Face

As part of that effort, Florida Earth officials remain firmly committed to sustainable agriculture. That’s the case also with the foundation’s newest board member, Tampa’s Robert Thomas. A third-generation Floridian, he manages more than 17,000 acres of low-intensity agricultural operations in three counties.

Although part of the Florida Earth Foundation only since early December, he is growing more comfortable with its mission: working collaboratively to develop incentives that will both save wildlife and generate income for growers.

“The environmental regulations that have increased in number and intensity over the past 30 years since I’ve been here have been almost mind boggling,” he says. “It comes to a point where these regulations are almost choking off the landowner’s ability to work in sustainable agriculture. Florida Earth is a bridge, trying to be an interconnector between preservationists and those who are involved in private sector agricultural and resource management.”