Could saving farms help conserve Florida’s coveted Corridor lands?

The Wildlife Corridor

Editor’s note: In partnership with the Florida TridentCentral Florida Public Media (previously 90.7 WMFE), and WGCU Public Media, Oviedo Community News is taking a deep look at what the Florida Wildlife Corridor does and doesn’t mean for our community. Below is CFPM’s second installment in a special, statewide collaboration called: “Preserve or Develop? The Race Against Time to Protect Florida’s Wildlife Corridor.”

Nesting fox squirrels, deer, gopher tortoises and bald eagles are just some examples of the wildlife you might see on any given day at the nearly 700-acre Evans Ranch in Flagler County, just outside the borders of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. 

“We don’t need a zoo; we have our own wildlife habitat out here,” laughs Jane Evans Davis, who co-manages Evans Farms with her brother, Geno Evans.  

The Evanses’ roughly 2,000-acre agricultural operation includes the Flagler County ranch as well as Anastasia Gold Caviar, their aquaculture facility, or fish farm, just over the Volusia County line. On the Flagler side are timberlands and the Evanses’ cow-calf operation. 

Could saving farms help conserve Florida’s coveted Corridor lands?
Jane Evans Davis of Evans Farms greets a cow on her family’s Flagler County ranch, which in 2009 became the first project protected by an agricultural conservation easement through Florida’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP). (Photo by Molly Duerig with Central Florida Public Media)

Like many family farmers, the Evanses’ interest in agriculture spans generations. They say their father bought the land back in the 1980s, when it was just “a blank slate.” 

“Dad’s love for the outdoors, and love for the property … I think that’s what’s led us down this path,” Geno Evans said.  

Now, the Evanses each hope some of their children, members of the next generation, will want to carry on the family’s farming tradition — and protect this rural land. That’s why they say they decided to protect their Flagler County ranchland with Florida’s first agricultural conservation easement, granted in 2009 through the state’s Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP). 

Typically, conservation easements restrict how land can be used. But in Florida, agricultural conservation easements allow land to still be used for farming, and stay in private hands, while providing tax benefits for landowners.   

“It was a decision we were making for the future generations of the family,” Evans said. “We still can do any agricultural venture that we want.” 

At Evans Farms, Geno Evans poses for a photo with one of the family’s beloved dogs, Myra, who prefers sitting in the driver’s seat. (Photo by Molly Duerig with Central Florida Public Media)

“Florida’s Wildlife and Water Corridor” 

Not all land is safe from future development within the 18-million-acre area designated by a 2021 state law as the Florida Wildlife Corridor.  

Eight million acres of Corridor lands are “opportunity areas,” lacking conservation protections — which don’t come from the Corridor Act itself, but rather from a range of different programs, run by state, local, federal and private entities. The Corridor essentially serves as a marketing/outreach campaign, directing attention toward what are scientifically identified as Florida’s most important lands to conserve. 

Much of the unprotected Corridor includes “working lands,” currently used for either ranching or silviculture/timber production, according to Tom Hoctor, director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning (CLCP) at University of Florida.  

And by 2070, much of the state’s farmland could be paved over and developed: including more than half of the unprotected Corridor, according to Agriculture 2040/2070, an analysis co-published earlier this year by Hoctor’s team and 1000 Friends of Florida.  

For Hoctor, those findings create a sense of urgency.  

“We have to protect working lands,” Hoctor said. “If we’re gonna protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor, if we’re gonna close all those gaps, working agricultural lands are essential to accomplishing that goal.” 

A beef cow strolls on Evans Ranch in Flagler County, which includes ranchlands and timberlands. Such “working lands” can often provide wildlife habitat and other valuable, yet underappreciated ecosystem services, according to Tom Hoctor, director of the Center for Landscape Conservation Planning (CLCP) at University of Florida. (Photo by Molly Duerig with Central Florida Public Media)

More broadly, even beyond the Florida Wildlife Corridor’s imagined boundaries, farmland in Florida stands to play a significant role in building climate resilience, according to the 2040/2070 report.  

“Often, depending on how it’s managed, and where it is, it can be very similar to natural ecosystems,” Hoctor said. 

As large, rural landscapes, ranchlands and timberlands like the Evanses’ often double as conservation land, Hoctor says: providing ecosystem services, like wildlife habitat and flood storage from natural wetlands. Wetlands and sandy uplands alike can also help filter and clean water, another reason why Hoctor says it’s so important to protect land in the Corridor. 

“It might as well be called Florida’s [Wildlife and] Water Corridor,” Hoctor said. “It’s just as important to protecting the state’s water resources as it is to protecting panthers or bears or other species.” 

Research published by the UF Water Institute in late 2022 supports that idea, at least in part. Specifically, a fully-connected Corridor would provide many water benefits for wetlands and rivers, according to the report. But it wouldn’t help as much with groundwater recharge for the Floridan Aquifer, a massive underground system of rocks and sediment supplying about 90% of the state’s drinking water. 

Just over a third of Florida’s highest-priority areas for aquifer recharge are located within the Wildlife Corridor, says Joshua Daskin, director of conservation for Archbold Biological Station, which commissioned the UF report.  

“The areas that are best for aquifer recharge are the really high, dry, sandy soils. And those are also the places that we prefer for agriculture — for row crops in particular — and for building our homes and businesses,” Daskin said.  

That’s why there aren’t so many of those areas within the Corridor, Daskin says: because there aren’t as many left to conserve. “A lot of them have already been developed,” he said. 

Still, aquifer recharge areas that are within the Corridor, along with surface watersheds, could benefit from protecting all the Corridor’s “opportunity areas” from development, according to the UF Water Institute study. That includes agricultural lands — with one important caveat. 

“The degree of protection provided to Florida’s watersheds and aquifer recharge areas will be dependent on how the [Florida Wildlife Corridor’s] conserved lands are managed,” the report states.  

For working lands in the Corridor, the report specifically recommends conservation easements that encourage sustainable land and water management practices. 

Farming and water pollution in Florida 

Historically and today, agriculture is critical to Florida’s culture and economy. But as an industry, it’s also a major environmental polluter. Together, livestock waste and fertilizer runoff make agriculture a major source of pollution to Central Florida’s freshwater basins, according to available data from Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP)

Excessive nitrogen from fertilizer is the main water quality problem for the Outstanding Florida Springs (OFS) currently classified as impaired, or polluted, by FDEP. Of all 30 designated OFS in Florida, 24 are considered impaired. 

Florida Springs Council (FSC) Executive Director Ryan Smart says it’s critically important to address Florida’s agricultural water pollution. Statewide, agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of nitrate pollution in springs, according to an analysis FSC published in 2021.  

“No matter what we do on the ground, it affects our springs. And whatever happens in our springs, it’s not only the springs and the rivers, but it’s our drinking water,” Smart said.  

Alexander Spring in Lake County is one of just six Outstanding Florida Springs (OFS) that aren’t currently impaired, or polluted, according to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). In all, there are 30 designated OFS in Florida, 24 of which are impaired. (Photo by Joanna Beckes with St. Johns River Water Management District)

Soil and plants will absorb some fertilizer before it seeps into our groundwater supply, but not all of it, Smart said, adding that Florida’s frequent rainstorms also complicate the problem. 

“You get a big rainstorm that comes in after the fertilizer’s been put down, and it just flushes all of that fertilizer straight into the aquifer,” Smart said. “And once it’s in the aquifer, it is very hard to get that pollution out.” 

That’s why Smart says it’s so important to minimize agricultural pollution before it has a chance to contaminate Florida waters. He says that means land conservation must be part of the solution. 

“To protect a spring, you can’t just put a fence around the spring,” Smart said. “The health of our springs is determined by the land use all around them … you have to protect forests, you have to have smart development, you have to have smart agriculture.” 

Florida law requires farmers within impaired water basins to use Best Management Practices, or BMPs, to improve water quality. But Smart says there’s a problem: farmers using BMPs enjoy an automatic “presumption of compliance” with water quality standards, meaning no water testing is regularly conducted to ensure those BMPs are working. 

Staff with Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) do visit farms with checklists to verify farmers are using BMPs. So far this fiscal year, as of mid-April, FDACS made 528 such “implementation verification” visits in Orange, Osceola, Polk, Volusia and Flagler counties, including 15 in Flagler. 

But FDACS says FDEP is statutorily responsible for water quality sampling, and FDEP didn’t answer questions about whether it tests water quality to ensure BMPs are working. 

“We have a presumption of compliance with water quality standards for farmers doing things that actually don’t improve water quality,” Smart said.  

“If you don’t study something, [and] you’re not gonna set the practices to where they’re not environmentally harmful, then it doesn’t make sense to have our environmental rules based on them.” 

On the Volusia County side of their property, the Evanses raise several different species of sturgeon in big cement tanks, harvesting the caviar eggs and selling them directly to restaurants and chefs all over the country. (Photo by Molly Duerig with Central Florida Public Media)

Incentivizing sustainable agriculture  

Smart recognizes agriculture serves a purpose in Florida, and doesn’t want to put farmers out of business; he just wants to see agriculture do less damage to the Florida environment he loves. But he says that won’t happen all on its own, without regulatory oversight — and incentives for sustainable farming practices. 

“We need to keep the land in private hands, we just need that land to be sustainable,” Smart said. “We need to be paying farmers for the environmental benefits and services that they are creating when they make these changes.”  

Echoing that sentiment, Hoctor says he wants to see Florida do more to incentivize sustainable agriculture, including by paying farmers for the ecosystem services they provide. He’d also like to see more funding dedicated to Florida’s RFLPP, the program protecting the Evanses’ easement, and the state’s other flagship land protection program, Florida Forever, which buys up land outright for conservation. 

“If you look at the Florida Wildlife Corridor law, it talks about market-based and incentives-based approaches to conserving the Florida Wildlife Corridor,” Hoctor said. “Well, I think funding Florida Forever and Rural And Family Lands is essential to accomplish that goal.” 

Hoctor advocates for $250 million a year, per program, to get the job done. It will require a “multi-decadal commitment” of that kind of funding, he says, to protect Florida’s most valuable ecological lands. 

But it’s worth it, Hoctor says, including to protect agricultural land, which he says is almost always much more “conservation compatible” than land that’s already been developed. 

“There’s almost a one to one relationship,” between agricultural and conservation lands, Hoctor said. 

“Yes, they’re not pristine. Yes, they’re not entirely natural systems. But they’re really important for conservation,” Hoctor said. “And they can continue to be managed for these low intensity uses, and stay really important for conservation.” 

This 25-foot-deep reservoir at Evans Farms can hold 60 million gallons of water, Jane Evans Davis says. It’s part of the family’s “100% closed” levee system, allowing them to drain, treat and recycle water from their aquaculture facility so it can be used again, the Evanses say. (Photo by Molly Duerig with Central Florida Public Media)

For their part, the Evanses say they prioritize sustainable agricultural practices. Geno Evans takes issue with the narrative that farmers are responsible for Florida’s water pollution, pointing out, there aren’t any residential BMPs that non-farmers have to follow.  

“We [as farmers] kinda live and die by our BMPs,” Evans said. “We manage our pollution, our runoff.” 

The Evanses also say they use sustainable water management practices, thanks to their “100% closed” levee system, complete with lift stations, sand filters and a reservoir that can hold 60 million gallons of water. The system allows the Evanses to drain all their aquaculture tanks on the Volusia County side, where they raise sturgeon for caviar eggs; then, treat the water and recycle it. 

“During drought, we’re one of the few farmers that actually can use water to do our fields,” Jane Evans Davis said. And she says the levee system also helps recycle nutrients through the farm, instead of letting them flow into any surface waters. 

“We’re a pretty rare operation,” Evans Davis said. “Most people don’t build this large of a retention area to hold all their water and keep it on their farm.” 

A newborn calf, just days old, sprints to keep up with its mother on Evans Ranch. “Being a cow-calf operation, you get attached to the mamas,” Jane Evans Davis says. (Photo by Molly Duerig with Central Florida Public Media)

The idea behind Florida’s RFLPP, the program that set up the Evanses’ conservation easement, is to “protect natural resources, not as the primary purpose.”  

Instead, the program is designed to “ensure sustainable agricultural practices and reasonable protection of the environment without interfering with agricultural operations in such a way that could put the continued economic viability of these operations at risk.” 

Nationally, there are about 7 percent fewer farms now than in 2017, based on the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture. But Flagler County, where the Evans Ranch is, lost 23 percent of its farms in the same time period. 

“It’s tragic, how many farmlands are disappearing,” Jane Evans Davis said. “We’re losing so many opportunities every day to protect sensitive lands with agriculture.” 

They worry people don’t understand or appreciate how much of their food supply comes from farms. “If we don’t feed ourselves, who’s gonna feed us?” Evans said. 

Jane Evans Davis leans out of a golf cart to greet the family’s donkey, Salt, on Evans Ranch on March 4, 2024. (Photo by Molly Duerig with Central Florida Public Media)

The Evanses hope to see more agricultural easements like theirs help farmers keep farming in Florida, versus selling off their land completely. Evans doesn’t like seeing farms outright disappear like that:whether it’s to the state or rich developers, who can almost always pay farmers more, and move sales along more quickly than the state can.  

“I’m in favor of the Wildlife Corridor, for sure,” Evans said. “But I’m not in favor of pushing agriculture out of the way for that … If they displace the agricultural part of it, I think they’re missing the whole point to the conservation.” 

And the Evanses hope their own agricultural conservation easement can help sustain the family’s farming tradition for generations to come. Evans says his kids both enjoy working on the ranch, and Evans Davis’ daughter, a trained fisheries biologist, loves the fish farm. 

“I want to make sure that this farm is healthy, safe and productive for my grandkids, and their grandkids,” Evans Davis said. “You have corporations that care, right? But do they care as much as a family that cares about that property that they want their future generations to live on?”  

The post Could saving farms help conserve Florida’s coveted Corridor lands? appeared first on Oviedo Community News.

Preserve or Develop? The Race Against Time to Protect Florida’s Wildlife Corridor

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Oviedo Community News

How Florida farm workers are protecting themselves from extreme heat

This story is part of Record High, a Grist series examining extreme heat and its impact on how — and where — we live.

On any given summer day, most of the nation’s farm workers, paid according to their productivity, grind through searing heat to harvest as much as possible before day’s end. Taking a break to cool down, or even a moment to chug water, isn’t an option. The law doesn’t require it, so few farms offer it.

The problem is most acute in the Deep South, where the weather and politics can be equally brutal toward the men and women who pick this country’s food. Yet things are improving as organizers like Leonel Perez take to the fields to tell farm workers, and those who employ them, about the risks of heat exposure and the need to take breaks, drink water, and recognize the signs of heat exhaustion.

“The workers themselves are never in a position where they’ve been expecting something like this,” Perez told Grist through a translator. “If we say, ‘Hey, you have the right to go and take a break when you need one,’ it’s not something that they’re accustomed to hearing or that they necessarily trust right away.”

Perez is an educator with the Fair Food Program, a worker-led human rights campaign that’s been steadily expanding from its base in southern Florida to farms in 10 states, Mexico, Chile, and South Africa. Although founded in 2011 to protect workers from forced labor, sexual harassment, and other abuses, it has of late taken on the urgent role of helping them cope with ever-hotter conditions.

It is increasingly vital work. Among those who labor outdoors, agricultural workers enjoy the least protection. Despite this summer’s record heat, the United States still lacks a federal standard governing workplace exposure to extreme temperatures. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, the agency has opened more than 4,500 heat-related inspections since March 2022, but it does not have data on worker deaths from heat-related illnesses.

Most states, particularly those led by Republicans, are loath to institute their own heat standards even as conditions grow steadily worse. In lieu of such regulation, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, through its Fair Food Program, has adopted stringent heat protocols that, among other things, require regular breaks and access to water and shade. Such things are essential. Extreme heat killed at least 436 workers of all kinds, and sickened 34,000 more, between 2011 to 2021, according to NPR. Some believe that toll is much higher, and efforts like those Perez leads are providing a model for others working toward broader and more strictly enforced safeguards.

“We look to [the Fair Food Program] for best practices in terms of how can agricultural employers already begin to implement these kinds of protections,” said Oscar Londoño, the executive director of WeCount, which has been pushing for a heat standard in Miami-Dade County. “But we also believe that it’s important to have regulations and forcible regulation that covers entire industries.”

The Fair Food Program works with 29 farms, which raise more than a dozen different crops, and the buyers who rely upon them. In exchange for guaranteeing workers basic rights, participating growers and buyers, including Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and McDonald’s, receive a seal of approval that signals to customers that the produce they are buying was grown and harvested in fair, humane conditions.

To protect workers, the guidelines require 10-minute breaks every two hours and access to shade and water. The program also extended the time frame during which those things must be offered, from five months to eight, reducing the amount of time that workers are exposed to the worst heat of the year. Growers also must be aware of the signs of heat stress and monitor workers for them. Such steps are vital, particularly in humid conditions, to prevent acute heatstroke and safeguard employees’ long-term health. Repeated exposure to extreme temperatures can cause kidney disease, heat stroke, cardiovascular failure, and other illnesses.

“Having time to rest and cool down is very important to reduce the risk of death and injury from heat stress, because the damage that heat causes to the body is cumulative,” said Mayra Reiter, director of occupational safety and health at the advocacy organization Farmworker Justice. “Workers who are not given rest periods to recover face greater health risks.”

A man stands in front of a crowd of farm workers in Tennessee.
A Fair Food Program educator leads a session at a farm in Tennessee. Courtesy of the Fair Food Program

Such risks were very real for Perez, who worked various vegetable farms around Immokalee and along the East Coast before becoming an educator and advocate. Because most farm workers are paid according to how much they harvest, few feel they can spend a few minutes in the shade sipping a beverage.

“The difficulty of the work makes you feel like it takes years off your life,” Lupe Gonzalo, a member of Coalition of Immaokalee Workers, wrote in a public blog post. High humidity makes things worse, and those who rely upon employer-provided housing often find no relief after a day in the fields because many accommodations lack air conditioning, she wrote.

Abusive conditions can compound the deadly conditions. A 2022 investigation by the Department of Labor revealed poor conditions, including human trafficking and wage theft, at farms across South Georgia. Two workers experienced heat illness and organ failure, and others were held at gunpoint to keep them in line as they labored.

Many were workers holding H-2A visas in a program that has its roots in the Mexican Farm Labor Program, launched in 1942, that sponsored seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico. (Currently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issues those visas.) Because of their reliance on employers for housing, visa sponsorship, and employment, many workers experience abuse, an investigation by Prism, Futuro Media, and Latino USA found earlier this year.

It doesn’t help that federal labor law, including the National Labor Relations Act, doesn’t cover agricultural workers in the same way it protects employees in other sectors, said James Brudney, a professor of labor and employment law at Fordham University. Additionally, language barriers, fear of retaliation, and workers who come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures keep many from speaking out.

Perez remembers having only bad options for dealing with adverse working conditions: Deal with it, complain and risk being fired, or quit. The Fair Food Program gives workers recourse he never had, and builds on protections against forced labor, sexual harassment, and other abuses it has achieved with workers, growers, and buyers, which have agreed not to buy from farm operators with spotty records, since 2011.

Workers are regularly informed of their rights, and violations can be reported to the Fair Food Program through a hotline for investigation. Heat-related complaints have grown increasingly common in recent years, and often lead to a confidential arbitration process. Such inquiries may lead to mandatory heat safety training and stipulations growers must abide by. Findings of more serious allegations, such as sexual harassment, can lead to a grower being suspended or even removed from the program. Such efforts protect workers, hold employers accountable, and allow the program to know what’s most impacting laborers, said Stephanie Medina, a human rights auditor with the Fair Food Standards Council.

“With the record heat, every summer has definitely, I think, gotten a lot more difficult for workers out there,” Medina said. “I think that is one of the reasons why we put so much emphasis on getting the heat stress protocols together and implemented in the program.”

Growers must report every heat-related illness or injury, which is investigated by Medina’s team or an outside investigator depending on severity. Her team visits every participating grower annually. Many of them go beyond the program’s requirements to ensure worker safety, by, say, providing Gatorade and snacks and regularly checking in on those who have experienced heat-related illness, she said. Workers, too, are being more assertive in protecting themselves, reporting any violations because they know they cannot be retaliated against.

Though no growers or farmer’s associations responded to Grist’s requests for comment, some at least appear happy with the organization’s work. “The Fair Food Program is giving us structure and is a tool for better understanding in a workplace that is multicultural and multiracial,” Bloomia, a flower producer and FFP participant, said in a statement on the program’s website.

Still, some farm workers’ organizations, while supportive of the program’s work, doubt that farm-by-farm solutions will ever be enough to protect a majority of farm workers. Jeannie Economos, of the Farmworkers’ Association of Florida, said comprehensive policy-level solutions are required. She noted that even in Florida nurseries, greenhouses, and other growers of ornamental plants employ thousands of people who are not yet covered by the Fair Food Program. Although they one day may be, federal, state, and local regulations are needed to ensure sweeping safety reforms.

“So what do we think of the Fair Food Program? It’s good,” she said. “But it’s not far-reaching enough.”

Other campaigns are working toward legislative solutions. An effort called ¡Que Calor! in Miami-Dade County, led by WeCount, has been pushing the issue for years, and in many ways is inspired by what the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has accomplished, Londoño told Grist.

“Miami-Dade is on the verge of passing the first county-wide [standard] in the country, and it would protect more than 100,000 outdoor workers in both agriculture and construction,” he said “In the absence of a federal rule, and in the absence of state protections, local governments can play a foundational role in piloting policies that states and the entire federal government can take on.”

¡Que Calor!, has, like the Fair Food Program, been led by workers. Including them in drafting policies can help ensure they are effective because “they know what their risks and the threats to their well being are better than anyone,” Brudney, the Fordham University professor, said

Yet even jurisdictions with strict labor laws can see their protections undercut because they often rely on employees, who may face reprisals, to report violations. Miami-Dade’s proposal skirts that by creating a county Office of Workplace Health with broad powers to receive complaints, initiate inspections, interview workers, and adjudicate investigations.

Amid such victories and a mounting need to protect workers, the Fair Food Program plans to expand its reach. It has cropped up at tomato farms in Georgia and Tennessee; crept up the East Coast to lettuce, sweet potato, and squash farms in North Carolina, New Jersey, Maryland, and Vermont; and sprouted on sweet corn farms in Colorado and sunflower farms in California. Organizers from the Fair Food Program have in recent weeks met with growers and workers in Chile eager to bring its efforts there.

The organization hopes to see its principals embraced more widely, and continues to pressure more companies, including Wendy’s and the Publix supermarket chain, to buy into the effort. Medina says such an effort will require staffing up, but she’s confident in its chances of success.

Many growers willfully neglect the rights and needs of workers, making such efforts essential, Perez said. The need for victories like those already seen on farms that work with the program will only grow more acute as the planet continues to warm. Even if federal heat standards are adopted, Perez believes local worker-led accountability processes will still be needed to ensure growers follow the law.

“What we see the Fair Food Program as is both a method of education and a way to share information with workers about these risks,” he said, “and at the same time as a tool for workers to protect themselves against the worst effects of climate change on a day to day basis.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How Florida farm workers are protecting themselves from extreme heat on Oct 27, 2023.

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