Sun City Tree Farm
Located in an area of Hillsborough County under critical water constraints, Sun City Tree Farm performed like an environmentalist’s dream come true last year, as it used only 60 percent of its permitted amount of water. The farm is owned and operated by brothers J.C. and Eric Tort, who have demonstrated that conservation efforts can readily go hand-in-hand with economic interests as they have expanded their tree farm from five to 150 acres over the past 16 years while also implementing a number of innovative practices that have significantly reduced water usage.
“As the farm has grown, our permitting has stayed the same, and so we have only the same amount of water,” J.C. said. “Over the years, we’ve had to come up with new systems to use less and less water and still grow trees better.”
The Torts’ many innovations range from developing a clamp and tether system that keeps trees from falling over in high winds while preventing injury to the trees, to adapting a root bag system that saves water by allowing tree roots to draw water from the ground.
Currently, 80 percent of their stock of approximately 100,000 trees is grown above ground in cloth bags as part of that root bag system, helping the Torts maximize the value of their plants while reducing the costs of fertilizer, weed control chemicals, fuel, irrigation, and labor. Trees grown in bags also show a faster rate of growth and are easily removed from the field for transport. A study done at the University of Florida over a two-year production cycle showed the profit on trees grown in bags to be approximately $74 per tree, contrasted with $15 per tree for those grown in traditional plastic pots. An economic analysis of Sun City done by UF-IFAS several years ago found it to be one of the most efficient tree farms in the state.
Each bagged tree is equipped with a drip emitter, which uses 30 percent to 50 percent less water than the conventional overhead sprinklers commonly used for irrigation in the nursery industry. Trees are also closely monitored for nutrient and moisture levels that allow for precision application of water and slow release fertilizer.
“When the problem is small, you can really hit the target with minimal damage to the environment,” Eric said. “When you wait too long, you have to use so much pesticide that the whole environment suffers.”
The Torts are also investigating the release of natural insect predators and biological control agents to naturally manage pest populations.
Another part of Sun City’s operation is a second site of 20 acres that is irrigated solely by surface water from rain and storm water collected in a two-acre storage pond, eliminating the need for a well and for groundwater withdrawals, which in turn saves water while also minimizing the negative impacts of saltwater intrusion to underground aquifer levels.
Still other environmental considerations in use at Sun City include leaving grass walkways between tree rows to increase the infiltration of rainwater and prevent soil compaction while also reducing the need for herbicides. Around the farm’s first site, a windbreak of trees was planted to create shelter for birds and other wildlife, while the second site is encircled by six acres of vegetative buffer to maintain natural habitat.
Recycling is a regular part of the farm’s routine, with even the cloth root bags reused as protective wrap on tree trunks during transport.
Always trying to learn ways to operate more efficiently, the Torts have some trees growing in other types of pots in order to compare tree growth, plant vigor, water use, root production, ease of handling, and other characteristics. The use of new pot designs, water monitors, irrigation flow meters, surface water/irrigation reuse, and other water management tools put Sun City Tree Farm on the cutting edge of available and affordable technology, a place they want to stay.
“The state is growing tremendously, and more people are getting into tree farming and so the competition is getting tighter,” J.C. said. “We have to be innovative and grow good quality trees, and I think our future will be great.”
Born in Morocco, J.C. and Eric are now proud to be United States citizens and active members of Hillsborough County’s agricultural community, where J.C. has served two years as president of the Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers and as the Tampa Chapter president of the Florida Nursery Growers Association. J.C. has said that everything he knows he learned from someone else. Now, he says, it is his responsibility to reciprocate, and so the Torts encourage other growers to visit their farm where they freely share information on their operation and production systems.
“The greatest reward is when other growers, who have the same problems we do, walk onto our farm and compliment us about our operation,” Eric said. “After all our hard work, this is the best thing we can hear.”
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