Eric Hjort is proving that sod production doesn’t have to translate to high water consumption. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) has recognized the Hastings farm manager for adopting innovative practices to protect water quality and reduce water use across 1,500 acres.
Tater Farms General Manager, Eric Hjot
Hjort, manager of the fifth-generation Tater Farms, a turfgrass and citrus operation, is a winner of the FDACS Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award. Established in 1994, the award recognizes agricultural producers who demonstrate leadership in developing and implementing innovative techniques to safeguard the environment and conserve natural resources.
Hjort is an innovator within the Tri-County Agricultural Area (TCAA) Water Management Partnership (WMP), a program coordinated by the St. Johns River Water Management District, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that helps growers in Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties implement projects that protect water resources in the Lower St. Johns River Basin.
Over the years, Hjort has taken advantage of the agricultural cost-share program offered through the TCAA WMP, says Suzanne Archer, a District technical program coordinator in the Bureau of Water Supply Planning
Tater Farms has participated in many of the partnership’s agricultural cost-share programs, using funds to upgrade several irrigation systems from the existing seepage, including installing 380 acres of subirrigation, and over 450 acres of center pivot system and linear overhead for its turfgrass operations and 120 acres of drip for the citrus. They are also implementing soil moisture sensors and weather stations across all of their acreage.
Suzanne Archer has worked closely with Hjort and Tater Farms to implement many of his cost-share projects. She is impressed by his ability to reduce water use and increase crop yields.
“Tater farms has realized a decrease of about 50 percent of its irrigation needs on the acres that have upgraded irrigation systems,” Archer says. “Their desire to encourage environmental stewardship is reflected in Tater Farms’ willingness to open their operation to other growers, leadership groups and decision makers.”
Eric Hjort (left) gives District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle and others a tour of water-saving practices and equipment at Tater Farms in 2016.
Eric Hjort demonstrates the control panel in an overhead sprayer at Tater Farms.
Originally harvesting potatoes and cabbage, Tater Farms transitioned to sod and turfgrass to meet increasing demand before recently adding citrus. Using research and data, Hjort encourages environmental stewardship and continuing education across the farming community.
By switching to subsurface irrigation and drainage, paired with precision fertilizer equipment, the farm reduced offsite loading of total phosphorus by 1,003 pounds and total nitrogen by 6,920 pounds annually while increasing its yield by removing water furrows.
Tater Farms is located about two miles from Deep Creek and five miles from the St. Johns River, prompting Hjort to collaborate with the District, DEP and FDACS to achieve the shared goals of water conservation and nutrient management.
“With a rapidly increasing population here in Florida, demands on our water resources are intensifying,” Hjort says. “Conservation of both water and nutrients is the only way we can survive.”