Ecosystem Services Move Forward in Florida

By Frank Giles

Farming has never been an easy profession, but the past few years have placed even bigger burdens on the job. The pandemic, supply-chain disruptions, inflation and extreme weather events have all placed additional challenges on profitability.

ecosystem services
This Lykes Bros. property in South Florida includes a large water storage project.
Photo courtesy of Lykes Bros

Even before the pandemic, a group of growers in Florida began recognizing challenges to their sustainability was a larger discussion than pests and diseases and the whims of Mother Nature. It was about how to protect the land they farm and better illustrate that to an increasingly urbanized state.

In late 2018, a working group was convened to address these issues. It would become the Florida Climate Smart Agriculture (FLCSA) initiative. These growers agreed Florida agriculture was not on a good trajectory, so they needed to look for new solutions. Several prominent specialty crop, livestock and timber producers are among the participants.

The effort, enabled by grants from the Turner, VoLo and Energy Foundations, has been facilitated by Solutions from the Land and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).

While there’s been a lot of events globally that have captured headlines since then, the FLCSA has continued to meet and prioritize goals. One objective is recognizing and quantifying services that growers provide in sustaining the environment, and where possible, creating revenue streams back to the farms for those services.

The group met in December to lay out priorities for 2023. Among the topics discussed were major weather events that are hitting Florida farms hard. Hurricanes Ian and Nicole are prime examples.

“Unfortunately, the hurricanes were another reminder of the new normal we are dealing with in Florida,” says Ernie Shea, president of Solutions from the Land. “These storms are very disruptive to production agriculture. We heard from growers who were impacted by the storms.”

The group agreed there needs to be better communication between the various agencies involved in storm response to expedite aid packages and help in the recovery process. They also discussed how ecosystem services and adaptive management can help farms be more resilient. 

GETTING PAID

As talk of agricultural ecosystem services increases, the obvious question many growers ask is: Will I get paid? Programs are being established to create carbon markets to offer payments to growers who sequester carbon in the soil. Much of that is occurring in row crops in the Midwest.

Florida’s unique ecosystems and diverse farming present challenges quantifying the benefits certain practices have on the environment. Before you get paid, you have to understand the difference you are making. Getting a better handle on this is the next big step for FLCSA. UF/IFAS also will play a major role.

Scott Angle, UF/IFAS senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, says incentivizing farmers to clean air and water, to shelter wildlife and to sequester carbon is essential to the future of Florida farming.

“Thanks to support from the legislature, we are doing important — I’d say groundbreaking — work at the University of Florida putting artificial intelligence (AI) to work on quantifying how much working lands can contribute to improving the full suite of ecosystem services from soil health, water quality and water quantity, to plant and animal biodiversity in the long term,” Angle says. “Because of our amazing capacity in AI, I expect that we will be in the vanguard nationally in determining the level of ecosystem services contributed by agriculture and what more we can do to increase provision of those services.

“We are beginning by developing a data collection and AI-based processing pipeline focused initially on plant biodiversity in collaboration with producers across the state. Florida has such a sensitive ecosystem that requires more management than other less fragile ecosystems. While making farming more difficult, it also creates opportunities for ecosystem improvement at the farm level. We can do more in Florida than in many other states.”

The system, called AI-HARVEST, is a hub for agricultural reporting and verification of ecosystem services using sensing technologies. The next steps will be to develop a prototype of the software and to work with FLCSA grower leaders to test it. The AI project design calls for layering management practices and examining ecosystem service deliverables using AI and computer modeling. Data collection work in 2023 will focus on plant diversity. This project will process satellite and drone images using machine learning to quantify the ecosystem services. Efforts are continuing to secure necessary funding to underpin this system development.

“Farmers are always going to produce food and fiber, but if they can also deliver high-quality ecosystem services at the same time, it is going to be valued by the public, and we can create a market for it,” Shea says. “That is the vision and where AI comes in to help us quantify and prove the concept.”

ecosystem services
Sanjay Shukla discussed ecosystem services and the success of water storage and treatment projects in Florida during Citrus and Specialty Crop Expo in August.
Photo by Frank Giles

PROJECT SUCCESS

One ecosystem service Florida is ideally suited for and has been practicing for some time is water storage and treatment. Sanjay Shukla, UF/IFAS professor of water quality, has been working on several projects to evaluate these systems. He said that given the importance of water to Florida’s economy, growers/landowners can get paid for these services.

“We have shown that by installing structures to control how water flows through their lands, farmers can provide water-storage and treatment services. Let us consider the Northern Everglades area, which mostly includes the lands north of Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River basins,” Shukla says.

“There is a need to store water inland to avoid harmful impacts on the east and west coast estuaries that receive flows from the lake. There also is a need to treat the water reaching to the lake and the rivers.”

There are several projects already established in the state that prove these water-storage programs work. One of those projects started about 15 years ago. It is called the the Florida Ranchland Environmental Services Project (FRESP). Shukla, along with UF/IFAS colleagues, worked in partnership with the Archbold Biological Station to design the monitoring systems to measure water levels and flows and nutrient concentrations at two FRESP sites.

“The results were impressive. On our water treatment pilot project, results showed that by passing water from a public canal through a ranch we could remove on an average around 85% of phosphorus from the water,” Shukla says. “We also verified that by installing water-control structures on agricultural lands, landowners can provide water storage that can provide enough economic benefit to them to make it worthwhile. Our preliminary estimates from the pilot project show that agricultural lands can provide the phosphorus-treatment service at a cost more than 10 times lower than the current expenditure on state-funded projects in the greater Everglades region.”

The success of the FRESP enabled the state to use it as the basis toward the creation of the Northern Everglades Payment for Environmental Services (NE-PES) program in 2011. The NE-PES currently has 15 projects that are operational and providing almost 100,000 acre-feet of storage. The pilot project also paved the way for other similar projects such as water farming and the dispersed water management in the Greater Everglades basin.

Water farming is enabling agricultural landowners in the St. Lucie River basin to offer water-storage services. Together, these projects are providing services of groundwater recharge and water supply, reduced nutrient discharges and enhanced biodiversity. It also keeps the lands on the tax roll and helps sustain the rural economies.

NEXT STEPS

While there’s still much work to be done, it is clear momentum is moving forward to establish markets for ecosystem services for growers. Water projects and solar farms already are examples of farmers/landowners offering up their property for paid environmental purposes.

The federal government also is all in. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $2.8 billion in funding for 70 projects under the first pool of Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities.

Not everyone is fully onboard. Some argue that agriculture should not get too caught up in ecosystem services when global food security is at risk. Others caution it could potentially turn into a boondoggle ripe for squandering taxpayer money. Shea argues it’s not a matter of producing either food or ecosystem services. “We are doing both,” he says.

Florida’s sensitive ecosystems benefit from the green spaces that farms provide and will become increasingly important as more people move to the state. With data to prove these services work, Angle says growers rightly deserve to be rewarded. They have been doing many of these practices for many years already in the normal course of farming.

“Ultimately, I hope citrus and specialty crop growers will benefit from public support for the uncompensated work they’ve long been doing. This could mean direct payments, but there are other ways to incentivize growers that our public policy experts can design,” Angle says. “Carbon sequestration, habitat enhancement for wildlife (and flora), water quality improvement and soil health are all golden opportunities for the Florida farmer.”