“Agriculture gets the black eye, but we are all to blame,” says FDAG rep
A friendly but skeptical group of Jackson County’s growers and ranchers attended an informational meeting Monday night called by the Florida Farm Bureau which also featured representatives from the Florida Department of Agriculture and the Northwest Florida Water Management District. FFB and FDAG want to help farmers as the state and its Department of Environmental Protection roll out the new regulations concerning water quality, known as Basin Management Action Plans (BMAP) and Best Management Practices (BMP). DEP has been saying since 2013 that nitrate levels which cause algae and plant bloom in the Merritt’s Millpond--and back up to the source Blue Springs, are far too high and that farming must do its part to reduce the nitrogen contamination.
DEP wants farmers in the Blue Springs Basin to sign up for compliance with state law (per the 1999 Florida Watershed Restoration Act) and begin using BMP manuals in their operations. But a question and answer session after the presentations showed that many farmers are not anxious to start signing up for BMPs anytime soon.
Some farmers attending the meeting asked about the reliability of the state’s water testing procedures, saying the water samples may reflect contamination levels from as much as 20 years ago, since the samples are taken at the mouth of Blue Springs, sampling the Floridan Aquifer itself. They are worried that the state regulations may require them to cut back their farming operations or be forced to initiate expensive testing of their soil and plants to comply with the state’s BMAP plan.
But FFB’s Charles Shinn said those worries may be premature. “The BMAP is just that, a plan,” he said. “The rules say that the plan must be feasible, cost-effective and practical.” There also are cost-sharing programs that may alleviate any financial burden placed on farmers, he explained. Tom Frick, a representative from DEP who attended the meeting but did not speak, told the TIMES afterwards that the BMAP for the Blue Springs Basin has not yet been completed and it cannot be enforced until it is signed by the DEP. The state will hold more public meetings (not public hearings) on the process probably beginning in March, he said.
Shinn and FDAG water specialist Hugh Thomas said the source of the nitrate contamination, which reportedly is of no danger to drinking water quality at this time, is not only from farming. “Farming is only a possible contributor,” he said. “There are point sources and non-point sources. Landowners and citizens all contribute.” Other sources that contribute to nitrate levels discussed were rain, septic tanks and natural levels in the soil, including from the areas above the Blue Springs Basin northern border --Alabama.
“Agriculture gets painted with a black eye,” Thomas said. “But the truth is, we are all to blame. Farming may be less to blame than we think, or not at all. It’s going to take some time to find out the true causes. The plans and their effectiveness will be reviewed every five years.” Thomas gave an example of how the soil and water could have been contaminated “20 years ago when it was not uncommon for corn growers to use 400 pounds per acre” of nitrogen for fertilizer. But we’ve come a long way since those days, he said, and many farmers actually may be using best management practices today. He explained that the use of GPS technology that “allows peanut harvesting in the dark” and improvements in the use of center pivot irrigation equipment have increased the efficiency of modern agriculture. And the cost-sharing programs could help farms increase their use of more modern methods.
Thomas, Shinn and Northwest Florida Water Management District representative Diana Thurman clearly were saying that farmers should give serious consideration to signing up with FDAG and adopting the practices in the BMP manual. They explained that failure to do so may result in the farmer or rancher having to “self-certify” that their practices do not result in nitrate contamination of their plants, soil and water supplies. That could require the drilling of special wells. At any rate, farmers soon will be required to keep records of compliance in case of a DEP audit. Thomas pointed out that the Suwannee River basin area, where he lives near Live Oak, has been adopting BMPs since 2006 and it has been determined that many farms already were soil-testing and using other BMPs before the requirement.
Shinn and Thomas explained that by signing up for BMPs, the farmer can obtain a “presumption of compliance” that is all the law will require. Thurman called it a “protection against regulatory enforcement.” The state wants Blue Springs Basin farmers to “do all that we can do that is feasible,” Thomas said.
“If you do what you are required to do, you are compliant,” Shinn said. “It may look like Mt. Everest at first, but this will all take a lot of time. It’s a step by step process.” There are no current deadlines for signing up for BMPs or other compliance with state laws concerning nitrate contamination of water supplies. The establishment of deadlines may come after the completion of the Blue Springs Basin BMAP, which, as the DEP rep pointed out, has not been done. Only farming operations in the Basin are affected.
The Basin runs from Merritt’s Millpond to the Alabama border on the south and north sides, and roughly from State Road 71 to River Road above Sneads on the west and east sides, respectively. Maps and other information are available with the Florida Department of Agriculture. Thomas can be reached in Live Oak at (386) 362-1001. The FFB company representative, Charles Shinn, can be reached in Gainesville at (352) 374-1522. Other Florida Farm Bureau reps working on state compliance with BMAPs are Allen Scheffer, at (352) 538-3182 and Scott Eubanks, at (352) 384-2633. The Jackson County Cattlemen’s Association provided the meals for the Thursday night session at the Agriculture Center on Penn Avenue.
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