Title: 1999 Ag-Environmental: Suwannee Farms
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
Joe Hall, Suwannee Farms: You go out and see a growing crop. Sometimes you wonder how it's ever going to turn out. You know, it takes a lot of faith. But I don't think there's any more satisfaction a person could have in going out on a morning and seeing a clean, good growing crop early in the morning and you've had a little bit to do with it; it's almost like painting a picture. It's a thing that certainly has a lot of imagination, innovation, that's put it all together here and made it work.
A sixth-generation farmer, Joe Hall certainly has been innovative. While he has farmed several large-scale operations throughout Florida and Georgia for the past 30 years, his progressive farming techniques would be essential when he purchased land in the Suwannee River Basin in 1979.
Joe Hall: We're located approximately a half a mile from the Suwannee River at the closest point of the farm. And basically this whole farm is a very sandy type soil. It's very low water-holding capacity; about half an inch is about as much as this land would hold before you get into a leeching situation. Very, very poor holding, water-holding capacity, though. As far as the topography, we're fairly leveled. We have some rolling land but basically it's pretty level here.
The farm, co-managed by Hall's son, Kenneth, grows sweet corn, field 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 for frequent low rate applications of water to reduce leeching. 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 form to create wildlife habitats. Each about 20 acres in size, these stands give a home to quail, dove, and a variety of native birds.
The center-pivot systems, once powered by diesel engines, are being replaced by electric motors. The submersible pumps are cleaner, more efficient and don't require the same maintenance as the older engines. Leaks of oil and anti-freeze are no-longer a problem around the well head, making it a much more environmentally friendly system.
Because of the sandy soil's poor water holding qualities, the fields do not hold nutrients. Suwannee Farms likens its farming to hydroponic farming. Soils are tested at least once a year to determine their nutrient needs.
Joe Hall: We assume that we've pretty well got to put all the nutrients there to make a crop. And the way we do that is we pretty well spoon feed the crop; we don't put all the fertility out at one time. For instance, we'll use up to seven applications of nitrogen on growing a crop of corn. If we do get a big rain, we won't lose all the nutrients here. And then we re-fertilize after a real heavy rain.
The old method of applying a homogenized "shotgun mix" of fertilizers often resulting in over-fertilization, is gone. Hall now applies the specific nutrients the soil requires, only when needed. Using such smaller amounts, the nutrients are less susceptible to leeching. And fertilizers can be applied directly into the irrigation system.
Joe Hall: The ability to go through the system has given us the ability to irrigate a lot of acres with nutrients at the same time without having to have a lot of tractors and a lot of people with the ground application equipment here. So it's been a tremendous production aid in applying fertilizer.
Pesticides and fertilizers are stored and mixed in containment systems. Designed to capture any spill-over from the loading process, sloped concrete floors channel any spills into an impermeable holding tank. This prevents leeching into the soil.
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.
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.
Joe Hall: We use mainly oats and rye as a cover. But it also helps us in our cattle operation.
Cattle serve a purpose on a farm that not many other animals do in that they can utilize forage which we have a tremendous amount of forage producing capacity; so we feel that cattle will be a very viable part of this operation, in particular, since we have gone to strip till agriculture. It's necessary that we plant this cover and we feel that it'll make a positive return on the winter crops in addition to serving as the erosion control. Normally it's been a dead expense to us.
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 producer of crops like sweet corn and potatoes, shipping the commodities throughout Canada and the United States. From the fields the produce is delivered to the on-site packing house where it is hydro-cooled and stored in massive refrigeration units until it is shipped.
Sustainable agriculture which integrates environmental health, economic profitability and social and economic equity is the ultimate goal of Joe Hall and drives all aspects of his farming operation. Efficient use of all its resources is an important part of Suwannee's philosophy. If the price of corn goes below production costs, it's more feasible to harvest it as silage for cattle feed, giving the farm an opportunity to recover some of the operating costs.
Joe Hall: We can make a better return by feeding it through cattle and also one day be putting that compost back on the land, to put more humus into this sandy soil here. That's our long-range goal with the cattle.
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 ranches. At the Management District's request, the Florida Department of Agriculture started the Suwannee River Basin Nutrient Management Working Group. This group, comprised of twenty-four state and federal agencies and private associations, sought to establish guidelines for environmentally safe practices known as Best Management Practices (or 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 this project.
Rich Budell, FDACS: Well, the beauty with working with somebody like Joe Hall is that he is very much interested in state-of-the-art. He likes to have the latest research information, he’s just as progressive as he ever was, he’s constantly looking for ways to do things better, and anything we can come up with that will make it easier for him to grow a crop, or make it more profitable for him, he’s readily willing to incorporate that into his day-to-day operations.
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.
Dr. Don Graetz, University of Florida: We really don't have too many opportunities to work in a real world situation where the farmer does exactly what he normally would do. Much of our work is done in research farms or we do small plots and have real controlled situations where it may not be exactly the way the farmer is doing it. So again this is a very nice opportunity for us to work with someone who has a good farming record and is willing to work with us and cooperate with us.
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.
Joe Hall: I think it's a very positive move in cooperating with Agriculture and with the different agencies to come up with some answers to a problem that certainly needs to be addressed. And I think the attitude at which they have taken to approach this problem is going to get a lot of mileage out of it. I think we can reach that point through cooperation a lot faster than we can fighting each other along the way here. So I think it's very, very positive.