Our residents often send conflicting messages about agriculture in Martin County. Whenever a major developer wants to turn cow pastures into lawns, residents are nearly ready to take up arms to “protect” our agricultural lands. Our Martin County Comprehensive Growth Management Plan even includes precise language to discourage development of these lands.
If you regularly watch our County Commission meetings, though, or read some activists' letters to the editor, you're likely to hear just the opposite. Far from being “protected,” agriculture often gets blamed for all our water woes. Agriculture is under attack.
As a result, many insist that farmers and ranchers should be allocated less water for their crops and cattle, and that the state should buy up our farmland and ranches for the “higher purpose” of environmental projects. We should ask ourselves, though, would these measures accomplish truly desirable outcomes?
If agricultural land continues to be removed from production, inevitably more and more food will be imported, leading to higher food costs, greater gas consumption to transport food, fewer farm jobs, a less vibrant economy, and greater exposure to unregulated pesticides used in other countries. Hardly desirable.
These critics of agriculture refuse to believe that farmers have adopted advanced technologies that continue their time-honored mission of being good stewards of the land. These generalized assaults on agriculture as a whole just add obstacles to a highly challenged industry, already under siege by foreign competitors, by unpredictable weather events, disease, by a growing population looking for new housing, and increasing costs.
Agriculture has become the scapegoat, the easy target, simply by ignoring some inconvenient facts. Farming practices are not the same as 40 years ago, or even 10 years ago. The typical tractor is more sophisticated than your cell phone, more advanced than the computers that put a man on the moon.
Computer technology plays a significant role in farming today, from laser-leveled fields that limit stormwater runoff, to drones that enable farmers to monitor crops to determine optimum water and fertilizer applications, without overfeeding, and precisely applying pesticides only when and where needed.
Technology today can even trace the journey taken by a single piece of fruit or stalk of celery in the U.S. from its source all the way to the grocery store.
We know that the Best Management Practices developed by the University of Florida for agricultural lands work. Statistics prove it. The quality of water now entering the Everglades has lower phosphorus levels than state-mandated maximums.
Today's farming methods are sound, yet agriculture carries the blame for the effects of legacy nutrients embedded over decades in the muck at the bottom of our lakes and rivers, and for the enteric bacteria which close our favorite swimming spots in lakes and river. Scientific studies have proven that the bacteria's DNA is from a human source, not cow, horse or chicken, yet fingers still point to agriculture.
The truth is, we cannot achieve clean water without removing septic tanks from the banks of our waterways and removing legacy nutrients from our watersheds. We accomplish nothing by blaming agriculture.
At the same time, we should be concerned about the state of agriculture overall. With the slim margins of farming as an occupation, the percentage of people engaged in agricultural production in the U.S. is now only 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, a precipitous drop from 2 percent just over the past two years. In 1840, it was 70 percent of the American work force.
In 1935, the number of farms totaled 7 million, and today it's dropped to 2 million, yet our population continues to grow. In Florida, that rate is nearly 1,000 persons a day. At the same time, the average age of a U.S. farmer is 58. Gradually, our farm fields wind up being owned by farmers' heirs who often sell to developers for up to 10 times the profit a farm can offer over a lifetime. Who can blame them for selling out?
Just in Martin County alone, the number of acres of agricultural lands between 2009 and 2013 shrank by more than 10,000 acres, according to the Florida Dept. of Agriculture. Florida maintained its second-in-the-nation ranking for vegetable production in 2015, although tomatoes largely disappeared completely in south Florida, and many row crops and former citrus groves are being replaced by nurseries and greenhouses for landscape plants due to the state's growth in urban development.
The bottom line is that we have less farmland, fewer farms, and more people to feed. In the Okeechobee watershed, we have some of the richest soil in the country, the same as found in Iowa and Indiana, which compete annually for the title as the world's “most productive” soil. Formed over millions of years from decayed organic material, these soils are called histosol.
They need water, not only for the crops, but to keep the soil itself from degrading. When these soils are gone, through sale, or eminent domain, or lack of nurturing, they're gone forever, leaving us dependent on other countries for our food supply. That's just plain unacceptable.
We need to truly protect our agricultural lands, and not just when a housing development is on the horizon.