(June 18) One of the most important elements of a farm is its ditch. That I learned early and often from my grandfather, a lifelong Missouri farmer who seemed to spend as much time surveying and reshaping the land as he did planting it.

Getting water away from the roots can be as important as getting water to the roots. Too much rain, and the youngest of seedlings will drown, or at least become weakened and disease-prone. No rain and they won’t grow it all. Get the right amount of rain and you’ll probably still have disease anyway.

Such is the balancing act of a farmer.

Water management is no less an issue across Florida, where produce growers are grappling with pressures such as urban encroachment, stiff environmental regulations and wells that must be dug deeper every year.

Just now emerging from two years of drought, the state’s industry is up to its neck in water measures that need to be addressed and seemingly over its head in a sea of regulation that prevents it from doing so.

“Water is a huge issue in Florida, as it is becoming everywhere,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Orlando. “Depending on where you are in the state, it can have slightly different twists and turns. But as Florida’s population grows and encroaches on that land, it will become tougher and tougher for our farmers to use water.”

The problems are myriad, said Butch Callahan, director of government affairs at the Tallahassee office of the FFVA and resident water expert.

In the panhandle, water is contaminated, he said. And the central part of the state has a water shortage, just like south Florida, which also has environmental concerns from phosphorus runoff in the Everglades.

“By a Florida constitutional amendment, the polluter pays for cleanup of the Everglades. There was always fear by the agriculture industry that a huge lawsuit would come along,” Callahan said.

To that end, growers in the state’s south water district recently received good news after legislation was signed into law to continue an agricultural privilege tax that extends the cleanup period for phosphorus runoff until 2013. A previous version of the law, which stipulated that the $1 million or so generated annually by the tax be used to come up with a set of best management practices to eliminate further contamination, was set to expire next year.

But the state has yet to come up with those guidelines, so growers feared potential lawsuits by environmentalists.

But by virtue of having paid and continuing to pay the tax, growers essentially can show compliance with the state and avoid litigation, he said.

The Tampa area, with gobs of strawberry, tomato and citrus farms surrounding it, hasn’t enough water to keep up with urban growth.

A planned desalination plant could help, said Chip Hinton, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association Inc., Plant City.

“We’re trying to put less pressure on the heartland, since 80-85% of the state’s population is on the coasts and has to pull water from the interior,” Hinton said, adding that too often agriculture is made the scapegoat during water shortages.

“We are visible users of water, but we don’t take in as much as people think,” Hinton said of the strawberry industry, estimating that it uses less than 4% of the area’s water. “There’s more water that leaks from pipes in general supply than we use.

“Historically, agriculture was the early user of the water and had plenty for its needs. Even though we’re increasing our efficiencies, saving water, more people are moving in and total water use is increasing.”

Most growers receive 10-year permits, but those are becoming more difficult to renew, he said, as the amount of water available for agriculture in general is tightened. That leaves growers vulnerable.

“While the watering of yards can be reduced in a drought, farmers’ water needs are amplified by the dry weather,” he said.

Take a shovel and start digging in Florida, and you’ve got a viable well at 20 feet or less. But that water has long been off-limits to agriculture, said John Taylor, vice president of Taylor & Fulton Inc., Palmetto.

The grower used to have its farms along the west coast of Florida, literally next to the water. The warm temperatures protected from freezes.

But fields have been moved further and further inland as more people come. And now those interior fields are running up against regulations on well drilling.

The firm now must dig down 1,200 feet, then encase a large portion of its well to prevent commingling of potable water (from about 500 feet below).

This is all very expensive, considering that in the past growers were able to tap water far closer to the surface.

But to a grower there’s no better feeling of security than having your own water, Taylor said, and he’s grateful for the wells he has.

Stuart said dwindling water availability is a relatively new issue in Florida.

“Historically, our issues have been more management issues … as in what to do with excess water,” he said.

For that, there are ditches. Indeed, when Florida was little more than a sticky quagmire of mosquito-infested swamps, no one wanted to come to the state. Then the dredges came, cleared the way for water removal and made the state an agricultural powerhouse. Now the very muck lands that used to be swamp are coveted by homeowners.

Before Florida agriculture can get some fresh water in its fields, it needs to drain away the brackish residue of state regulations that are drowning its roots. After all, to many of the same Americans who so desperately want to live in Florida, citrus, strawberries and tomatoes are what put the state on the map.