By Frank Giles
The region south of Lake Okeechobee, comprised largely of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), is one of the most unique farming landscapes on the planet. Its wide-open vistas can be seen from space, and the land’s dark, rich soils contribute to the production of a significant portion of America’s specialty crop supply. Over the years, farming expanded onto some of the sandy soils in the area as well.
A Proud History
Many growers who call the EAA home have done so for generations. They appreciate their unique spot in maintaining domestic food security and protecting green spaces from continued urban encroachment.
Keith Wedgworth is a fourth-generation farmer in the area with family roots dating back to the pioneer days of the EAA. His great grandparents, Herman and Ruth Wedgworth, moved to Belle Glade in 1930. Herman was a plant pathologist and worked for the University of Florida at the research center in Belle Glade, a facility still in operation today.
During his time as a scientist, Herman studied the unique characteristics of the muck soils south of Lake Okeechobee and helped farmers become more productive. In 1932, he decided to start his own farm, which grew and prospered. He built the first produce packinghouse in Belle Glade. His expertise in plant pathology led him to blend fertilizers specifically designed for the area’s soils, which turned into a successful fertilizer business.
Herman was killed in a tragic accident at the packinghouse in 1938. But Ruth, with three young children, decided to keep the farm going.
“It was a tough decision to make for my great grandmother at the time,” Keith says. “Back in the 1930s, it was still kind of the Wild West in that part of Florida. But she decided to keep the farm despite the potential challenges.”
The farm, which produces sugarcane and rice, is still in operation today, as is the fertilizer business. While other families have different stories, the generational nature of farming in the EAA and other parts of Florida are common.
When Herman and Ruth Wedgworth moved to the EAA in 1930, there were less than 1.5 million people in Florida. Today the state’s population is pushing 22.5 million. Growth has brought tremendous change, opportunities and challenges.
The vast majority of people moving to the state (more than 1,000 per day) are not involved in agriculture and have little to no knowledge of farming. That has caused some conflict when increasingly urban communities bump up against farms. This is especially true for the EAA and surrounding farmland. The vast agricultural acreage is surrounded by some of the most densely populated coastline in Florida.
The debate over water quality and nutrient management has gone on for decades. All too often, it has pitted agricultural and urban interests against one another. Despite the contention, there has been a consensus that phosphorus is bad for the delicate estuaries and Everglades surrounding the lake.
Everglades Forever Act
In 1994, the Everglades Forever Act was passed by the state legislature. It laid out an ambitious goal to attack the phosphorus problem. The law mandated that water entering the Everglades National Park has only 10 parts per billion (ppb) of phosphorus. That’s the equivalent of about a spoonful in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
The law meant that all the water flowing down the Kissimmee River watershed into Lake Okeechobee and through the EAA into the Everglades could only carry 10 ppb of phosphorus. The law also called on EAA farmers to reduce phosphorus loads in water leaving the area by 25% of pre-best management practices (BMPs) levels. Along with other rules, farmers in the area are among the most regulated in the world.
Many wondered if the EAA could meet the goals set out by the 1994 law, including area growers, but history has shown they’ve been successful hitting phosphorus targets.
“Farmers in the EAA have successfully implemented BMPs for the past 27 years and have reduced nutrient runoff by an average of over 57%,” says Ernie Barnett, executive director of the Florida Land Council. “This is more than twice the regulatory requirements set forth in Florida law. Their efforts have prevented a cumulative reduction of over 4,420 metric tons of phosphorus from entering the Everglades.”
These reductions are being achieved in a high phosphorus environment. The muck soil in the EAA is basically decayed plant matter and carries 800,000 to 2 million ppb of phosphorus. Given the 10-ppb standard set by the law, exceeding legal goals is even more impressive.
This didn’t happen by accident. It took massive investments by growers and the state and federal governments. Stormwater treatment areas have played a key role in storing excess water and reducing nutrient levels. Investments continue to increase acreage of water treatment areas. And growers have deployed improved practices and new technologies to reduce nutrients and better manage sediment movement.
Advocating for Achievements
Despite the work growers have done to lower nutrient levels in the area, it often gets lost in the debate and news headlines that gravitate toward controversy. EAA farmers have taken it upon themselves to speak up to illustrate their achievements, not to mention their importance in providing food for U.S. consumers and beyond.
Keith Wedgworth is among those growers. He and a group of other growers and stakeholders established a Facebook page called EAA Famers to illustrate the vital role agriculture plays in the economy and to tell the story of local growers.
“Palm Beach County is the largest agricultural county east of the Mississippi River, so we are a huge economic driver in our state, county and especially to our rural Glades community,” Wedgworth says. “We have been proactive telling the great story of being stewards of the land. I am proud to be a farmer in the EAA.
“If you are not telling your story, someone will tell it for you, and it will not be positive. We cannot be like previous generations and not be out in the public eye. We must be on social media and other platforms to educate the public about agriculture. All Florida farmers have a great story to tell. We just need to get better at telling it and making sure it gets to the right people.”
Paul Orsenigo also farms in the EAA with his son Derek. He agrees being transparent and opening his operation to others is essential. Like many other growers in the area, Orsenigo hosts multiple tours throughout the year for lawmakers, regulators, schools, academics, social media influencers, civic groups and more.
“We’ve hosted hundreds of people on our farm over the years. Nobody is going to fight our battles for us,” Orsenigo says. “We keep very busy growing and harvesting crops and trying to innovate every day. But, at the same time, we must play an educational role for the public.
“Flood control, water quality and drinking-water supply, and balancing all that with urban and agricultural needs is a huge task, so we must stay engaged in the conversation. That gets even more important as more people move to Florida.”
Barnett concurs. “The tremendous advancements in the implementation of BMPs, precision agriculture and the use of artificial intelligence in agricultural production have resulted in major improvements in water quality and water conservation in our state,” he says. “Unfortunately, these advances are not widely known or understood by most of the public. It’s important for all agriculture producers and commodity associations to get this message out to counter a significant amount of misinformation about agriculture.”
The Everglades Agricultural Area and Palm Beach County have a huge economic impact on Florida and are vital to America’s food security. Here’s a few quick facts to consider about the region:
- It leads in the production of lettuces and related leafy greens east of the Mississippi River.
- It leads all counties east of the Mississippi River in agricultural income.
- It leads the nation in production of sweet corn and sugarcane.
- It’s the top producer in Florida of bell peppers, rice, leafy greens, radishes, Chinese vegetables, celery, eggplant, herbs and sod.