Joe Hall is a sixth-generation farmer who has farmed several large-scale operations throughout Florida and Georgia for the past 30 years. He began purchasing land in the Suwannee River Basin in 1979. The farm grows sweet corn, potatoes, snap beans, cucumbers and peanuts on 5,200 acres of irrigated land.
Because of the area’s sandy soil, Suwannee Farms had to become very efficient in its application of water, fertilizers and pesticides. The farm operates a series of center-pivot irrigation systems that apply frequent, low-rate applications of water to reduce leaching. Forty-three irrigation systems, each centered in its own square field, checkerboard the farm. Where the corners of the fields meet, diamond-shaped stands of planted pines and hardwoods create wildlife habitats. Each between 5 and 20 acres in size, these stands provide a home for quail, dove, gopher tortoises, and a variety of native birds. The diesel engines that once powered the center-pivot systems are being replaced by electric motors, which are cleaner, more efficient and don’t require the same maintenance as the older engines. Leaks of oil and antifreeze are no longer a problem around the wellhead, making it a much more environmentally friendly system.
Because of the sandy soil’s poor water-holding qualities, the fields do not hold nutrients well. Suwannee Farms likens its farming to hydroponic farming. Soils are tested at least once a year to determine their nutrient needs. Gone is the old method of applying a homogenized “shotgun mix” of fertilizers that often resulted in over-fertilization of some nutrients; Hall now applies the specific nutrients the soil requires, only when needed. Using such smaller amounts, the nutrients are less susceptible to leaching. In addition, the fertilizers can be applied directly into the irrigation system.
Pesticides are used only on an as-needed basis. Scouts are trained to identify not only high concentrations of pests, but nutritional or fungal problems on the crops as well. An experienced scout can recommend a very selective pesticide to control a specific intruder, leaving other beneficial insects unharmed. Pesticides and fertilizers are stored and mixed in containment systems. Designed to capture any spillover from the loading process, sloped concrete floors channel any spills into an impermeable holding tank. This prevents leaching into the soil.
Wind erosion is another major challenge to farming sandy soil. Because of the level topography, winds create a sandblasting effect that is devastating to crops. To counter the threat, Suwannee Farms plants cover on the soil, then strip tills row crops into the protected fields.
In addition to raising crops, Suwannee Farms has a packing house and sales force to market its commodities. Suwannee Farms plans its harvests to coincide with peak sales windows. During these windows, the farm is one of the country’s larger producers of crops such as sweet corn and potatoes, shipping the commodities throughout Canada and the United States. The produce is delivered from the fields to the onsite packing house where it is hydro-cooled and stored in massive refrigeration units until it is shipped.
In the early 1980s, the Suwannee River Water Management District noticed increases in nitrate levels in the Middle Suwannee River Basin. The high levels led district scientists to address all possible sources of the pollution, including farms, dairies, and chicken operations. At the Water Management District’s request, the Florida Department of Agriculture started the Suwannee River Basin Nutrient Management Working Group. This group, comprised of 24 state and federal agencies and private associations, sought to establish guidelines for environmentally safe practices known as Best Management Practices (BMPs) to resolve the problem.
Because of his history of voluntary cooperation with regulatory agencies, the group turned to Joe Hall for a site to implement research for this project. Previously, Hall had opened his West Florida farming operation to water sampling by state regulators and researchers. As part of the new study, Hall agreed to a multi-year research project with the Florida Department of Agriculture, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and the Suwannee River Water Management District.
For this program to be successful, it was essential that the data be collected from actual working fields. To accommodate this, Suwannee Farms has committed a 160-acre plot with center-pivot irrigation to assure valid scientific data over a five-year period. This setting provides scientists with “real world” situations where a farmer uses normal operating procedures, instead of research farms or small plots where conditions are more controlled and artificial. During the program, water and soil samples will be taken and pesticide and nutrient levels measured in the aquifer and the various depths of the sandy soil. Hall will farm as usual for the first year, then modify his methods on the site based on the changes recommended by the researchers.
Several agencies involved in the study are making a multi-year commitment to the project, dedicating scientists and technicians to the research. Viable practices that are developed as a result of this research, such as reduced applications of nutrients and pesticides, will be implemented by other operations in the Middle Suwannee River Basin.