By Kiana Brockel, NFU Intern
Regular readers of NFU’s Climate Column know there are many ways farmers can mitigate the negative effects of climate change. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers farmers technical and financial support to help interested farmers mitigate climate change and become more climate resilient. In every state throughout the U.S., the State Conservationist considers the advice of bodies like the State Technical Committee to identify key conservation priorities. The state NRCS office then focuses resources and programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to address the specific concerns so identified. Farmers can secure more support for practices and management decisions that work toward those state priorities.
As the state’s second most lucrative sector, agriculture is central to Florida’s economy. Florida is also one of the nation’s top specialty crop producers; the state’s farmers produces 66 percent of American oranges, bringing $1.5 billion to Florida annually. Agricultural success in Florida can be largely credited to the state’s moderate climate, which allows for the production of perennial crops, including citrus.
However, Florida’s coastal location makes the state and its agriculture more susceptible to the effects of climate change, such as sea level rise and intensified weather events, both of which will dramatically impact land and water availability, likely leading to decreased crop yield and quality. According to data from the USDA, Florida farmers are already seeing the effects of climate change on their farms; over the last decade, orange production in Florida has declined. This decline is in large part due to extreme weather events, like hurricanes. Florida farmers will have to adapt to climate change if they are going to continue to profitably grow quality citrus.
Citrus is a tropical to subtropical crop that requires large quantities of water to produce. Florida has historically enjoyed plentiful water resources. However, irregular precipitation due to climate change and increased urbanization have made water a valuable commodity. As water tables continue to drop, Florida has designated water conservation as a state priority.
The state has also recognized control of invasive species as a priority. The citrus industry in Florida is directly threatened by pests and the diseases they carry. According to The National Academies Press, approximately 4,500 arthropod species have been introduced into the United States, 1,000 of which have become crop pests. For example, a disease known as citrus greening, or huanglongbing (HLB), was introduced to the U.S. by insect vectors like the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP).
Currently, pesticides like aldicarb are widely used to combat invasive species like ACP. Despite its ubiquity, there is fear that aldicarb use is a threat to the state’s now dwindling water supply. Studies conducted in the 1980s in the central sands area of Wisconsin showed aldicarb can reach ground water supplies, and further studies suggested there are health risks with consumption of aldicarb-contaminated groundwater. This leaves citrus farmers in a difficult position of trying to prevent pest infestation without damaging groundwater.
Scientists in Florida are exploring techniques used in Vietnam to prevent ACP infestations. Using a method known as trap cropping, Vietnamese farmers often interplant citrus with guava. The guava is intended to distract, intercept, retain, or decrease targeted insects or the pathogens they transmit, thereby reducing damage to the citrus. This practice has nearly negated ACP infestations, and consequently citrus greening.
Citrus farmers who want to reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides could begin by implementing these practices in their orchards. EQIP, which offers financial and technical assistance to implement structural and management conservation practices that optimize environmental benefits on working agricultural land, may be a helpful resource. In Florida, water quality degradation, insufficient water, soil health, and plant and animal health are statewide priority issues – making improvements in any of these areas could be assisted by an EQIP contract.
Farmers looking for ways to add value to their crops, while also practicing climate conscious farming, may consider using the Agricultural Marketing Service to differentiate themselves from their competition. AMS uses quality standards, grading, certification, auditing, and inspection to inform consumers about the products they are purchasing. Using a label like Florida Water Quality Conscious, or establishing a new process documenting novel pest control methods, could help to communicate to conscious consumers how your product is different.
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