Stetson University Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience Awards Sustainable Farming Fund Grants

Sustainable farming initiatives are expected to reduce water pollution in the Suwannee River.

The Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience at Stetson University is helping to reduce the discharge of pollutants into the Suwannee River with grants to private farmers and conservation pilot projects in northern Florida. The funding comes from the $1.3 million Sustainable Farming Fund (SFF), which is providing pecuniary resources to purchase equipment for implementing environment-friendly farming practices.

SFF grant recipients include: 3 Rivers Cattle and T & T Hay Farms, both in Jasper, Florida (Hamilton County); 4 Star Farm, Ease Land Organic Farm and the Suwannee County Conservation District (SCCD), all in Live Oak, Florida (Suwannee County); and Mitch Holtzclaw Farm in O'Brien, Florida (Suwannee County).

"The private farmers will be using high-tech agricultural equipment that allows them to apply fertilizer exactly where it's needed instead of spreading fertilizer over the whole farm area," explained Shelley Gentile, the institute's program manager. "The reduction in fertilizer use means there will be less nutrients in the aquifer."

During the first year, the SFF program is dividing the grant funds totaling $300,000 between the five private farmers and SCCD. The SCCD is using its award for a pilot project, featuring as many as 10 area farms. The awards are allowing grant recipients to purchase and use new equipment for sustainable, eco-friendly farming techniques.

Current grant recipients and private farmers within the Suwannee River Basin are invited to submit a request for proposal for grant funds in September 2019 and 2020. Funds for the second and third years combined will total $900,000. All of the SFF monies must be awarded within three years.

The SFF awards also can be used by private farmers as matching funds for grant support from the Suwannee River Water Management District for precision agricultural techniques funded through the Division of Water Restoration Assistance's Springs Restoration Funding, which provides funding assistance for projects that improve the quality and quantity of the State of Florida's water resources.

The SFF was established on Feb. 14, 2018 as a result of a settlement of the Clean Water Act lawsuit brought by Environment Florida and the Sierra Club against the Pilgrim's Pride Corporation. The lawsuit claimed that the food company's chicken processing plant in Live Oak was polluting the Suwannee River.

"Eighty percent of the Suwannee River's impairments have been caused by agricultural runoff," said the institute's executive director Clay Henderson. "The Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience believes that the Sustainable Farming Fund will help farmers establish sustainable farming practices to reduce fertilizer use and agricultural runoff flowing into the Suwannee River and make an environmental difference, which is going to be a real game changer."

The lawsuit was concluded through a mediated settlement, which was reviewed by the United States Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and approved by the United States District Court Middle District of Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. The Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience was appointed as the SFF's fund manager by the district court because of its water and environmental research experience and independence.

The Suwannee River flows from the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia and exits into the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. Pollutants from the chicken processing plant as well as nutrients from other agricultural operations affected middle and lower sections of the Suwannee River Springs, which features seven freshwater springs that flow into the river. The Suwannee Springs include Fanning, Falmouth, Lafayette Blue, Madison Blue, Manatee, Peacock and Troy Springs in Gilchrist, Hamilton and Suwannee Counties.

The SFF is providing farmers with opportunities to use different farming methods that will preserve the Suwannee River and environment.

To submit a proposal, SFF grant recipients had to meet three standards, including having farms that were under 500 acres and sales of less than $500,000 and receiving the State of Florida's agricultural best management practices program certification. The farmers and SCCD also have to provide quarterly reports about their progress throughout the year.

Proposals were reviewed by an eight-member committee, which will make site visits and collaborate with the Suwannee River Water Management District and others to monitor the reduction of fertilizer use in the Suwannee River Basin.

The Institute recently filed its first annual report with the district court, which included information about the development of the SFF program and release of the request for proposal along with the private farmers' and SCCD's proposal summaries and statuses and grant awards.

In addition to the grants to private farmers, the SFF is providing a $20,000 educational award to the Future Farmers of America (FFA) at Suwannee High School in Live Oak. The school group is purchasing equipment to improve sustainable agricultural practices for its nitrogen leaching reduction educational project, which will be conducted at various farms throughout Suwannee County. Nitrogen leaching occurs when nitrates leave the soil in drainage water. Once the nitrogen gets into the ground water and other fresh water bodies, then it becomes an environmental pollutant.

The Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience expects to see results by this time next year and the conclusion of the SFF program three years from now.

"Hopefully, we will be reporting that the farmers enhanced or maintained their production and did it quantifiably with a smaller amount of fertilizer," said Henderson. "We'll share the results with the Gilchrist, Hamilton and Suwannee County Farm Bureaus and other constituents. We want to see if the Sustainable Farming Fund provided a model that's good for the environment and Suwannee River."

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