SB10 could hurt food supply say growers

OKEECHOBEE — The Florida Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation was asked to consider the effect of taking 60,000 acres of Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) farmland out of production at the Feb. 7 hearing on Senate Bill 10.

While some senators appeared to be concerned about the damage Senate Bill 10 could do to the nation’s food supply, the committee unanimously voted to go forward with it.

SB 10 requires the South Florida Water Management District to purchase 60,000 acres within the EAA for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. It details the boundaries of the EAA, but does not specify which 60,000 acres must be purchased.

During the 2016 campaign, Senator Joe Negron used two circles on a map to show possible sites, but in interviews since the election he has been more vague.

“I am the president of the Florida Sweetcorn Growers Association so I am very knowledgeable of what 60,000 acres means to vegetables,” said Paul Allen, of R.C. Hatton Farms in Pahokee, told the Senate committee Feb. 7.

“Twenty-five percent of the acreage in the EAA is used for vegetables,” he said.

“The vegetables of south Florida feed your country seven and a half months of the year; 179 million people east of the Mississippi rely on vegetables from the EAA.

“By taking 60,000 acres, that will mean 20 percent of the vegetables will be gone,” he said.

He said the first to see the impact will be the 800,000 students in public schools who enjoy fresh vegetables on a weekly basis through the USDA Farm to School program.

“The loss of 60,000 acres is going to have a different effect than you think,” he said.

He said the United States food supply is a matter of national security.

“Farming is a matter of national security,” he said.

“I live on the lake,” he said. “We want the lake water to be clean also,” he said.

“The water needs to be cleaned before it goes into the lake,” said Mr. Allen.

Stephen Basore, of TKM Bengard Farms, said TKM is one of the properties in Senator Negron’s circles.

He said they grow lettuce which goes to schools, hospitals, grocery stores and restaurants.

“If you eat salad December through April, it comes from us,” he said.

“We deserve a voice before big government takes 60,000 acres of farm land out of production and puts us out of business.

“Florida is third in the country in production of fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said.

“Every year more farmland is taken out of production. Once our industry is gone, it will be gone forever.

“This land grab is not only a job killer. It’s a community killer and it’s an industry killer,” Mr. Basore said.

John Hunley, of Hunley Farms, pointed out that SB10 requires SFWMD to buy 60,000 acres in the EAA from willing sellers by the end of the year.

But there are no willing sellers. Mr. Hunley said the 14 property owners who own EAA parcels of 2,500 acres or larger sent a letter to the Florida Senate to that effect.

“My family owns Hunley farms. We have been farming there since 1935,” he said.

“The truth is the EAA farmers have been working to restore the Everglades for more than 20 years,” he said.

He said the farmers have invested millions of dollars to ensure water entering the Everglades is clean.

BMPs (best management practices) have produced fantastic results, he said, adding that 90 percent of the water entering the Everglades National Park is at or below the 10 parts per billion (ppb) level of phosphorus.

Bill sponsor Senator Rob Bradley commented that just because there are no willing sellers in February does not mean there won’t be willing sellers in April.

“I strongly believe the state of Florida already owns a large portfolio of land sufficient to build the appropriate infrastructure sufficient to relieve the frequency of these discharges by up to 90 percent,” said Ernie Barnett, environmental consultant for the Florida Sugar Cane League.

He pointed out that 4.9 million acres — 42 percent of all of the property within the boundaries of the South Florida Water Management District — is owned by the state, the federal government or the SFWMD. That doesn’t even count the property owned by the military and local governments, he added.

“Instead of buying land, what we truly need to do is fund the expedited construction of the infrastructure necessary on the land we already own,” he said.

He also said the highest priority should go to expediting rehabilitation of the Herbert Hoover Dike so that the lake level could be allowed to rise temporarily if needed in heavy rain events.

The second priority should be to build “retention storage and treatment north of Lake Okeechobee on the land we already own,” he continued.

He noted a demonstration given to the SFWMD Water Resources Advisory Committee demonstrated “that a combination of above-ground reservoirs on land we already own, Aquifer Storage and Recover (ASR) wells and deep wells can eliminate 60 to 80 percent of the discharges.”

The third priority he suggested is to reformulate the storage and treatment capacity on the property SFWMD already owns south of the lake to store and treat more water.

These strategies are more cost effective and efficient and will provide faster results than buying more land in the EAA, he said.

“There’s three sides to every story: your side, our side and the true side,” said Steve Wilson, mayor of Belle Glade.

He said Senator Bradley is proposing a bill that builds a reservoir in the EAA.

“Our side is saying what about the folks who live in that area?

“Then there’s the true side: If we don’t repair the dike, as already indicated, everything else wouldn’t matter,” he said.

“This region is the epicenter for agriculture,” said Chandler Williamson, Pahokee city manager.

“We are the home of 21st century food production,” he said.

“My grandparents came to the Glades area in the 20s,” said Lomax Harrelle, city manager of Belle Glade.

“We’ve endured freezes, excessive rains, hurricanes.

“Through it all we have persevered. But when you talk about taking 60,000 acres of farmland out of service, it would be a tragic, tragic situation.

“The farmers in our area spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions over the years, to improve the quality of water that leaves their farms. That’s not just talk, That’s a scientific fact.”

“Lake Okeechobee is a shallow lake,” said Mary Ann Martin, owner of Roland Martin’s Marina.

“It always was and I hope it will always be.

“We have a great migration of endangered species birds and other birds, lots of ducks who come down to Lake Okeechobee to nest and reproduce and fly back home,” she said. “That’s why it needs to be a shallow lake.

“Even though the Corps has built a huge levy around it, we can still maintain a shallow lake to keep the marshes and the habitat healthy,” she said.

“The problem is that when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed the current system, they never thought there would be 7 to 9 million people moving into South Florida,” she continued.

“If this bill goes through you will be putting a knife into all of the communities south of Lake Okeechobee and then you will be putting a knife into Lake Okeechobee,” she said.

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