What are the best management practices of the Everglades Agricultural Area?

The Everglades of Florida are not just swamp-filled alligator territory! Part of the Everglades is managed as a highly productive agricultural area.

Called the Everglades Agricultural Area, it is located south of Lake Okeechobee. The land mass area is about one fourth the size of the original everglades.

Soils in the Everglades Agricultural Area are fertile. They formed from plant material that slowly decomposed and accumulated for thousands of years. This makes the soils in the area high in organic matter, an essential soil component that influences soil fertility.

Since these soils are fertile, they were drained and have been cultivated for agricultural use for more than a hundred years. In 1994, The Everglades Forever Act was passed to ensure the sensitive ecosystem would be more protected from nutrient runoff and other environmental issues. The Act created a set of best management practices based on three categories:

  1. sediment control best management practices.
  2. nutrient management control best management practices.
  3. water management control best management practices.
map of Florida and Everglades Agricultural Area
Map of Florida and Everglades Agricultural Area. Source unknown. Modified by Andres Rodriguez.

Additionally, farmers within the Everglades Agricultural Area can implement other best management practices that do not belong specifically to the three main categories. The goal of the program is to reduce phosphorus loads (common in fertilizer) from the area by 25% or more compared to the 1978 – 1988 base period. The program allows farmers to choose between a set of practices to be implemented. Each practice has an assigned number of points, and farmers must reach a total of 25 points.

Sediment control best management practices

Phosphorus can attach itself to sediments and particles along waterways. This is called particulate phosphorus. When sediments or soils move and fall into farm canals they can be exported into waterways. Sediment control practices are designed to retain sediments and particulate phosphorus in the farms and prevent them from being exported.

Examples of these practices include:

  • cleaning sediments from farm drainage canals
  • implementing sediment traps to retain sediments before water is pumped out of the farms
  • leveling fields to minimize movement of soil into the canals after rain events (water erosion).
tractor fertilizing soil in field
Banding of fertilizers in Everglades Agricultural Area soils. This practice places fertilizer in narrow bands near the crops’ roots, maximizing their ability to use nutrients and reducing runoff. Credit: South Florida Water Management District.

Nutrient best management practices

Nutrient management control improves the fertilization program, avoiding losses of excess fertilizer into canals. One key nutrient management practice is a calibrated soil test. Farmers test the concentration of phosphorus in the soil before application of fertilizer. They then apply fertilizer in the precise amount to supply the crops adequate nutrients and avoid excess fertilizer. This practice is a win-win because farmers save money by using less fertilizer and less phosphorus gets into canals.

Other nutrient management control best management practices are to establish protocols to avoid spilling of fertilizers. Farmers can use slow-release phosphorus fertilizers or apply their fertilizers using a method called banding. This method creates a narrow band near the plant root, where the fertilizer is applied. This maximizes the crops’ ability to use the nutrients applied and reduces the amount that might runoff the field.

Water best management practices

Water management control best management practices are based on minimizing the volume of water pumped off the farms. Farmers use rain gauges to measure the amount of rainfall that farms receive. Detaining rainwater on farm reduces the amount of phosphorus being exported from the farms. Farmers can hold back ½ inch or 1 inch of rainfall on farm and get points toward their best management practices permit.

Other water management control best management practices are to improve infrastructure to recirculate water before it is pumped off the farm, or to optimize draining and irrigation schedules to minimize water discharge.

water pump station with pumps surrounded by cages and underground pipes leading into small body of water in field
Pump station at a farm in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Pumps are used to drain soils and maintain conditions so they can be cultivated for crop production. Photo credit: Andres Rodriguez.

The good news

The Everglades Agricultural Area best management practices program for phosphorus reduction achieved and exceeded the goal of 25% phosphorus load reduction! The area is evaluated as a whole in terms of reaching the phosphorus load goal. For the majority of the years since 1996 phosphorus loss reduction has been higher than 40%.

Current research focuses on how soil chemistry and properties impact the performance of farms that implement best management practices. This research project is done with the cooperation of farmers, which is crucial to ensure the success of this program in the years to come.

It’s important to notice that the Greater Everglades ecosystem also includes the basin of the Kissimmee River located north of Lake Okeechobee. This blog focuses on best management practices implemented only in the Everglades Agricultural area, however factors affecting the northern Everglades can also affect phosphorus concentrations going into the Everglades National Park.     

Answered by Andres F Rodriguez, University of Florida

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