The Suwannee River in north central Florida

DELAND, FL – In March 2017, NELC attorneys sued one of the world’s largest chicken producers, Pilgrim’s Pride, for repeated violations of the Clean Water Act at its poultry processing plant in Live Oak, Florida. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Environment Florida and Sierra Club, alleged that the company had committed 1,377 days of Clean Water Act violations since 2012 by discharging wastewater that exceeded pollution standards—by as much as triple the legal limits—into the Suwannee River.

The parties entered into a judicial consent decree in January 2018 that required Pilgrim’s Pride to perform a comprehensive study of the plant’s discharges to the river and to make necessary upgrades to its wastewater treatment plant. Additionally, the settlement imposed a $1.43 million civil penalty, $1.3 million of which was allocated to create the Sustainable Farming Fund (SFF), which is managed by the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience at Stetson University.

The SFF was established to improve soil, groundwater, and surface water quality in the Suwannee Basin by funding projects that promote sustainable farming. This is expected to reduce the runoff of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to the river and thus reduce the algae blooms that have plagued it. The SFF released its first Request for Proposals on August 6, 2018, and has funded several successful projects thus far:

• T & T Hay Farms received $20,000 to purchase drag and field renovator equipment to more evenly spread manure over its fields, which is expected to reduce nitrogen in the soil by 33 percent.

• Ease Land Organic Farm was granted $72,000 to purchase equipment to convert its manure to nutrient rich compost and thus become a fully organic farm.

• 3 Rivers Cattle received $36,000, which allowed the owners to purchase equipment for a crop rotation system that is expected to reduce nitrogen in the farm’s soil by 33 percent.

• Suwannee County Conservation District was granted $20,000 for a pilot project to demonstrate how cover crops reduce nitrogen leachate, and the project has been extended as a result of the success of the cover crop fields.

• The Future Farmers of America chapter at Suwannee County High School was given $20,000 for a pilot educational project on nitrogen leachate reduction which included the purchase of a no-till planter.

These projects are helping demonstrate that sustainable farming is practical in the region, and that it can reduce the likelihood of harmful agricultural runoff to the Suwannee River.

The SFF began soliciting additional Requests for Proposals in late 2019, and expects to make another round of grants in the near future. Thanks to the NELC Pilgrim’s Pride consent decree, the SFF will be able to continue to provide local farmers with the support they need to encourage sustainable farming practices in central Florida and help protect the integrity of the Suwannee River Basin for future generations.