JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Created as part of the settlement of a Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by NELC attorneys against a Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant (see page 4), the Sustainable Farming Fund (SFF) has been helping Florida farmers rethink their relationship with the aquatic environment.
The SFF, administered by the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience at Stetson University, has awarded 28 grants designed to help farmers reduce their “nutrient footprint” on adjacent waterways. On Feb. 15, the SFF filed its final report with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. Although they are still preliminary, the results are encouraging.
The $1.3 million fund was designed to help local farmers operate more sustainably, with the hope that at least some of the lessons learned would be applicable to the wider agricultural community. The SFF particularly targeted small family farms with slim profit margins, as they are often unable to acquire the necessary equipment or labor to try new techniques.
Farms most frequently used SFF grants to implement rotational cattle practices, no-till planting, and cover crops. Rotational practices involve building fences and moving water troughs so cattle can graze in different pastures, thus reducing the impact on any one area. No-till planting avoids the soil disruption inherent to tilling, thereby conserving water, preventing erosion, and improving soil health. Cover crops planted during a cash crop’s off-season, or between rows of crops, decrease erosion, water evaporation, and nutrient leaching. SFF grantees often implemented these methods alongside other nutrient-reduction techniques, such as precision fertilization and side dressing.
• Three projects involved educational
components: a set of cover crop sample farms, a demonstration of targeted fertilizer application, and a project at a local high school.
• One farm completely converted from intensive row crops (a fertilizer- intensive method that can cause erosion and leaching) to a cow and calf pasture operation, significantly decreasing its water consumption and fertilizer application.
• Two farms dedicated a portion of their land to conservation easements, which will protect rural land from future development and its associated environmental costs.
• One dairy farm built a large free-stall barn to enable the control and treatment of waste from its dairy cows, significantly reducing nutrient leaching from manure.
Based on scientific literature regarding cover crops, one farm estimated that it could reduce nitrogen leaching by 700,000 pounds per year, while another calculated that it could decrease fertilizer application by 100 pounds per acre. Some farms report 20-33 percent decreases in fertilizer application after implementing precision fertilization and rotational farming. This represents hundreds of pounds of annual fertilizer reductions for each farm. These results suggest that the SFF will be a force for positive changes in farming practices, both in the Suwannee River region and nationwide.