As if Florida grower-shippers do not have enough challenges to combat, new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency could cripple agricultural production, which has for years been dogged by rising production costs.

Doug Ohlemeier
Eastern Editor

The rules could spread to other growing regions, burden growers with excessive costs and ultimately put production agriculture out of business.

After an environmental group sued the EPA and claimed the agency wasn’t enforcing the 1998 Clean Water Act in Florida’s lakes and waterways, the EPA proposed tough numeric nutrient water quality standards.

Unrealistic?

Agricultural and other interests contend the lawsuit-driven rules are unrealistic, unattainable and could harm not only agriculture, but burden local water districts and destroy thousands of Florida jobs.

The proposal institutes stricter standards for nutrients or fertilizers running into Florida’s lakes, streams and coastal waters and would also require growers to construct costly on-farm water treatment and retention systems.

The University of Florida studied the proposal and concluded the rules could displace a significant amount of agricultural land.

Because growers would try to locate water treatment systems in marginal or non-productive lands, that could cut crop production, the study said. 

If the proposed rules governing the application of phosphorous and nitrogen become law, Florida agriculture could pay billions of dollars more in production costs and become another reason for many growers to leave the business, and thus produce less U.S.-grown food, growers contend.

North Florida potato grower-shipper Danny Johns, owner of Blue Sky Farms, Hastings, Fla., said the proposed rules would destroy years of work he and other growers have done with local water management districts to implement best management practices.

“With the BMPs, there is sustainability, and it has to be economically viable,” Johns said. “With the EPA deal, this is ‘Hey, these are what the rules are. You have to eat them.’ Those rules don’t have that sustainability component. If it puts us out of business, that’s just a shame. Maybe we shouldn’t have agriculture in Florida anyway. That’s their take on it. It’s a scary concept.”

Dan Richey, chief executive officer of grapefruit grower-shipper Riverfront Groves LLC, Vero Beach, Fla., said he has worked closely with Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who has helped slow the process.

Richey said Putnam, who is running for Florida Agriculture Commissioner, persuaded the agency to take a second look at its proposal and consider independent science in what Richey called a Draconian proposal. 
Implementation of the proposed rules could help shift more food production overseas.

“There are an awful lot of people in agriculture that are teetering on the sense of, ‘Do I stay in this business or do I not,’” Richey said.

“We are constantly measuring those variables and risks such as weather and disease. Then you add one where government intervention comes into play. There may be some who throw up their hands and say, ‘To hell with this!’ They will take all the other risks they can’t control but won’t continue this battle when the government is intervening into their livelihoods.”

Fortunately, Florida agriculture groups such as the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, and Florida Citrus Mutual, Lakeland, have allied with other stakeholders such as municipalities and water districts, groups that normally don’t work on the same side of issues with agriculture.

The recent University of Florida study said the rules could endanger 14,000 Florida jobs, and Richey said homeowners could pay more for tap water because many public water providers can’t meet the heightened regulations.

Florida Citrus Mutual calls the rules unsettling and said the numbers proposed seem to be arbitrarily set and without scientific support or independent review.

Johns said he’d feel better if the agency based its rules on valid science, much like produce industry leaders calling for scientific-based commodity-specific food safety regulations.

In any other proposal, the government assembles a study to show how the change could affect those governed.

If Florida becomes the first state required to implement the onerous rules, Johns said California, Arizona and Texas will likely be forced to implement the rules within five to six years.

“It’s going to affect all agriculture in the U.S. sooner or later,” he said. “We just happen to be the tip of the iceberg. If I’m the canary in the coal mine, I’m starting to fall out.”

E-mail dohlemeier@thepacker.com

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