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Traveling through the Everglades Agricultural Area, it's easy to see the intersection of agriculture and wildlife....
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Tour showcases tales of success in Everglades Agricultural Area


Belle Glade, Fla. (October 30, 2014) – Egrets surround tractors and wagons used for sugarcane harvest. Alligators float in drain pipes. Barn owls reside in wooden boxes next to crop fields.
 
Traveling through the Everglades Agricultural Area, it’s easy to see the intersection of agriculture and wildlife. This scene is part of the “Unique Story of the EAA,” a tale of farmers working with the ecosystem to achieve great results.
 
This story was told during the 2014 Conservation in Action Tour, hosted by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) Oct. 14-15. The tour showcased several aspects of agriculture in the EAA. More than 150 participants from 20 states attended, representing numerous roles in the agriculture industry, such as growers, agricultural retailers, agricultural and conservation organizations, federal and state agencies and students.
 
The EAA is an approximately 700,000-acre farming region located south of Lake Okeechobee. Several agricultural conservation systems have been implemented there to keep nutrients and soil on the land and out of the Everglades ecosystem.
 
As part of these systems, Florida growers implement best management practices (BMPs), which are practical, cost-effective farming methods that keep soil and inputs on their fields of lettuce, sugarcane, rice, sod and other crops. These practices also often enhance production.
 
EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS
 
As part of Florida’s Everglades Forever Act in 1994, growers rose to the challenge of reducing nutrient runoff from crop fields in the EAA. By collaborating with regulators and researchers, they have decreased phosphorus runoff by a long-term average of approximately 54 percent, more than double the reduction mandated by the Everglades Forever Act.
 
Anita Foster, corporate responsibility manager for tour leader The Mosaic Company, said that these achievements, as well as the challenges faced by growers in the EAA, were encouraging.
 
“Seeing the ways Everglades Agricultural Area growers, who may compete with each other in the marketplace, work together in applying best management practices was inspirational,” Foster said. “The Everglades is unique and special, and the adjacent agricultural area has one-of-a-kind soil, water and wildlife. With modern agricultural techniques and careful management, a positive balance can be maintained between well-nourished crops and environmental protection.”
 
WILDLIFE AT WORK
 
Tour participants’ view of the good stewardship activities in the EAA started at a constructed wetland 
known as a stormwater treatment area (STA), which is designed to filter nutrients from water that runs off of farms before it reaches the Everglades. Best management practices and 57,000 acres of STAs combined have helped reduce the amount of phosphorus reaching the Everglades. Participants also saw many native wildlife species that have found a home in these wetlands.
 
Researchers and growers demonstrated the implementation of best management practices out in the field during the next tour stop. The use of flooded rice production in a BMP program was discussed, as rice can be used as a cover crop for sugarcane producers and can play a role in soil conservation. Tour participants also visited a pump station, which is a water management tool used to either dry or provide moisture for the farmland. Participants witnessed EAA vegetable production up close as they examined machinery, plants and soil used in production. 
 
Attendees also met barn owls during this stop. Since 1994, farmers have participated in a barn owl project from the University of Florida, in which special boxes are placed around crop fields. Owls make their homes in the boxes and control the rodent population in the field, preventing millions of dollars’ worth of damage to the crop.
 
SOIL SUBSIDENCE
 
The next tour stop was at the Everglades Research and Education Center (EREC), a facility for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences that houses research in soil and water conservation, nutrient management and more. Speakers discussed challenges facing soil, water and crop quality, such as insects and soil subsidence (shrinkage of the soil). They also discussed sugarcane breeding programs and biological controls such as parasitic wasps that prevent pest damage to crops. 
 
A thick cement post with number markings offered a powerful visual representation of the challenges that Florida’s unique soils present. In 1924, the post was pounded into bedrock with the top even with ground level. Today, six feet of the post is exposed due to subsidence occurring over the past 90 years. However, the post is a demonstration of how BMPs are slowing subsidence: from 1924 to 1967, the average rate of subsidence was more than one inch per year, but from 1967 to 2009, the average rate decreased to approximately half an inch per year.  
 
Also at the EREC, Richard Budell, director of the Office of Agricultural Water Policy for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, discussed water use in Florida agriculture. He covered topics such as efficient water use in agriculture, competition for water, water supply challenges and water quality BMPs such as placing fences or buffers near waterways or managing stormwater.
 
STALK BY STALK
 
The final stop focused on precision agriculture, the use of technology to tailor agricultural practices to the needs of a crop in the field. In the EAA, precision agriculture can be seen in the process of growing sugarcane, a significant part of Florida agriculture. Demonstrations of sugarcane planting and harvesting, as well as laser land leveling, were run in the fields as the audience watched nearby. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and auto steer to guide machines are examples of precision agriculture techniques used in the equipment.
 
After seeing these examples of precision agriculture in sugarcane (and tasting some of the sugar in the cane stalk), participants caught the sunset at the City of Pahokee Campground and Marina during dinner.
 
SHARING SOLUTIONS
 
One of the most valuable aspects of the Conservation in Action Tour each year is the opportunity to network with professionals from many different sectors of agriculture. Tour particpants had the chance to talk with agriculturists and conservationists from across the country throughout the tour. While traveling between stops, participants were able to talk with growers who work in the EAA and who have implemented BMPs in their operations. 

Also, on the night before the tour, participants gathered for a social at the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium where they could talk with other attendees and exchange ideas over appetizers and cocktails. This was only the beginning of the conversations and insights exchanged between participants on the tour.
 
Bertrhude Albert, University of Florida doctoral student in agricultural education and communication and one of several students who received a scholarship from CTIC to attend the tour, saw great value in the opportunity to talk with others involved in agriculture. 
 
“I loved every second of the tour,” Albert said. “Networking and meeting new people, experiencing the EAA, learning new facts and being inspired by the passion of the EAA researchers and growers all contributed to making the tour an incredible experience. I am so glad I was able to attend. I am already planning for next year!”
 
SPONSORS AND MORE
 
CTIC offers a heartfelt thank you to each of the sponsors who contributed to the tour: The Mosaic Company, John Deere, Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, Wedgworth’s Inc., The Nature Conservancy, Agrium, Soil Health Partnership, Monsanto, Case IH, DuPont Pioneer, The Fertilizer Institute, National Association of Conservation Districts, Agricultural Retailers Association, CropLife America, J. R. Simplot Company, The Andersons, Inc. and The Sand County Foundation.
 
Every year, CTIC selects a special place for a dynamic, action-packed tour that showcases innovative ideas and emerging technologies in conservation agriculture.  Information about the 2015 Conservation in Action Tour, which will be held in Minnesota, is coming soon.
 
For tour videos, photos, presentations and more, visit www.ctic.org/CIATours. For more information about CTIC and its projects, visit www.ctic.org or call 765-494-9555.
Copyright © 2014 Conservation Technology Information Center, All rights reserved.


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