A lot of crops and a lot of beef are produced in what the state of Florida calls the “Blue Springs Basin.” This is the area of northeastern Jackson County that includes Merritt’s Millpond and the “First Magnitude Spring” system centered at the Blue Springs Recreation Area. The “basin,” (actually not all low but including fairly high ground, comparatively) encompasses roughly all the land between State Road 71 and the River Road from Merritt’s Millpond to the Alabama state line. That’s Malone, Bascom and Dellwood as well as areas north of Marianna, Cypress and Grand Ridge.
With the agricultural (and residential septic tank) usage come the nitrates from fertilizers and pesticides that can detrimentally affect water quality and therefore the fish and plants of the Merritt’s Millpond/Blue Springs system. As rainfall washes the runoff into the water, excessive vegetation, for example, can result. Drinking water supplies below the ground can be affected. The passage of recent controversial septic tank legislation is an example of how the state is cracking down. Gov. Rick Scott has gone along with agricultural restrictions proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and recently approved additional appropriation money for the “First Magnitude Springs Initiative.” However, agriculture plays an enormous roll in the economy; its critical value in jobs and food production cannot be discounted. And it has never been proven that current ag practices are the culprit.
But nitrate levels already are regulated by the state—and the state is aiming toward stricter enforcement of those levels. What the state is asking, and what the agricultural community can do to possibly lower nitrate levels is the subject of a special meeting being organized jointly with the Jackson County Cattleman’s Association, the Jackson County Farm Bureau and the Florida Department of Agriculture.
Jeff Pittman lives and farms in the Bascom area. Pittman is president of the Jackson County Farm Bureau and serves as District 2 state director for the Florida Farm Bureau. He is helping to organize the meeting and spoke with the Jackson County TIMES on Friday. “The Florida Department of Agriculture wants the options to be known to all farmers,” he said. “We hope the conference room at the Penn Avenue Ag Center is full. We’ll have a meal starting at 5:30 p.m., no charge. Charles Shinn of the Florida Farm Bureau will have a presentation and there will be representatives from the Suwanee River Water Management District who will explain how they have successfully implemented a Best Management Practices (BMP) system there for years.”
It’s gotten to the point where farmers need to consider the options and act, Pittman says. “This is not a scare tactic,” he explained. “We just want to make sure producers in this area know what DEP is trying to accomplish. DEP will not be present at the Jan. 26 meeting.”
Option One: Farmers can “enroll” in a Best Management Program at no cost, Pittman said. DEP and the agriculture department, with the help of the University of Florida’s IFAS, have produced a manual for each community that can be followed to the best of the producer’s ability. Growers will be required to follow that manual and use nitrogen accordingly, sending plant samples for nitrate level testing. The results would then be posted by the grower and made available to the state in the case of an audit.
Option Two: Farmers can “self-certify” their nitrate levels,” Pittman said. “But the agriculture department has estimated that this could cost up to $35,000 per farm,” he added, “based on the estimated costs of required test wells.”
The Northwest Florida Water Management District recently announced $1 million in spending, half of which was to be used to “build upon the success of the District’s Jackson Blue Spring Agricultural BMP grant program,” WMD officials said. “This grant program will provide cost-share funding to agricultural producers for irrigation system improvements and equipment and tools to reduce fertilizer and pesticide use and improve water use efficiency—protecting both water supply and quality. Agricultural partners provide 25 percent in matching funding for this program.” WMD is also spending money to study whether the Claiborne Aquifer, located beneath the Floridan Aquifer, could be used as an alternative for agricultural use. Use of the Claiborne possibly could help maintain the southerly flow of the Floridan by keeping it at maximum levels.
“There are cost-share options in the basin programs,” Pittman said. “Best Management allows landowners to maintain stewardship of the land. There is a lot we can do to increase our efficiency in the use of fertilizers and pesticides—to maximize that efficiency. We need to do all we can do.”
IF YOU GO
When: Monday January 26, 2015
Where: Jackson County Agricultural Center Conference Room, Penn Avenue, Marianna
What time: Evening meal begins at 5:30, free. Meeting begins at 6 p.m. CST
Who: Jackson County Cattlemen’s Association, Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Subject: Best Management Practices, nitrate level regulations
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