Understanding the value of water
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In this issue
Massive restoration of headwaters of the St. Johns River is completed.
Cost-share program helps farmers innovate and conserve water.
2016 marks a decade of work in the St. Johns River’s lower basin.
Bekemeyer Family Farm grows crops in hydroponic towers, taking less land and using less water.
Florida’s farmers innovate and conserve water with help from the district
The Bekemeyer Family Farm in Winter Garden has been in operation since John Bekemeyer’s grandfather first began taming the land in 1920.
“When I was a kid, we were growing 15 acres of citrus with row crops growing on the back five acres,” Bekemeyer says. “In the early 1980s, freezes wiped out nearly everything.”
The grove was replanted and did well for many years but was recently devastated by the Citrus Greening disease, Bekemeyer says.
In 2015, Bekemeyer came up with an idea for revitalizing the farm by employing state-of–the-art hydroponics, or gardening without soil, to grow produce on a fraction of the land required for traditional row crops. It’s similar to systems used at Epcot’s land pavilion.
The challenge, Bekemeyer soon discovered, was securing funding for such an endeavor.
Bekemeyer Family Farms displays fresh fruits and vegetables in front of a new, innovative hydroponics system implemented with assistance from the district’s cost-share program.
“I spent what seems like half my life working with a federal program applying for assistance,” he recalls. “You fill out an abundance of paperwork and hear crickets for months.”
The situation changed after one of the federal employees with whom he’d forged a professional relationship tipped him off about the St. Johns River Water Management District’s agricultural cost-share program.
Suzanne Archer, the agricultural cost-share program’s technical program coordinator, is a self-described “Iowa farm girl” who understands the trials and tribulations Florida’s farmers face every day: fickle weather, droughts, freezes, pests and diseases, to name a few. She also knows growers — even the true stewards who employ best management practices — oftentimes face criticism about their water use and stormwater impacts when runoff carries fertilizer, pesticides and salts to nearby river and lake systems. It’s a tough business for growers.
“The agricultural cost-share program helps farmers and growers fund projects that implement best management practices they may not otherwise be able to afford,” says Archer. “Many farmers grow on the same land that has been in the family for several generations and they want to conserve water and reduce nutrient runoff because healthy soil and water means better crops and livestock health.”
During the first round of funding, the district funded 19 projects totaling $2.5 million, providing growers with funding assistance for irrigation retrofits, rainwater harvesting, soil mapping and variable rate fertilizer spreaders. Building on the program’s success, district’s Governing Board in February 2016 awarded an additional $1.9 million in cost-share funding to assist 15 farmers, growers and ranchers in 10 counties with water conservation and reduction of nutrient runoff. Funding included $1 million for six projects as part of the Tri-County Agricultural Area Water Management Partnership in Putnam, Flagler and St. Johns counties.
“The agricultural cost-share program helps farmers and growers fund projects that implement best management practices they may not otherwise be able to afford.”
— District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle
“Agricultural cost-sharing is a true collaboration between the district and our region’s participating growers,” says St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle. “There is no doubt the benefits of each project are far-reaching. We’re excited to help facilitate projects that contribute to improving the overall health of our water supply and natural systems.”
The Bekemeyer farm now teems with 1,200 vertical towers festooned with strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes “and a slew of other varieties,” Bekemeyer says.
“The rest is a wonderful story,” Bekemeyer says. “I worked with Suzanne (Archer) to fill out the application and was approved soon afterward.”
Water savings is nothing short of outstanding. The Verti-Gro hydroponic system enables the family to grow three acres’ worth of crops on one-half acre of land using approximately “10 percent of the water you would normally need,” Bekemeyer says.
“When the system is watering lettuce, for example, the irrigation might kick on for three or four minutes twice a day,” he says. “All of the water trickles down the towers to each level of plants so that nothing is wasted.”
The total project cost was $201,585.67 with the district providing $167,818.04, or 83 percent.
Bekemeyer says the family’s “u-pick” strawberries business has been booming. There’s more to come: the hydroponic system is only the first of four phases and 2,350 citrus trees are being planted this year. The Bekemeyer Family Farm is a vital part of the community again, providing fresh fruit and vegetables to thousands of Floridians.
“The district’s agricultural cost-share program was a godsend, providing the right opportunity at the right time,” Bekemeyer says. “Everyone in the family is kicking in — my brother and sisters, in-laws, nephews, my dad who is 88 and my mom who is 84. They’re out there every day, working the farm.”