Bucks Toward BMPs

Kelsey FryWater

Cost-share assistance is available from several sources for growers looking to implement improvements to best management practices.

By Tacy Callies

The names of the organizations and programs that provide funding to Florida citrus growers for best management practices (BMPs) projects — SWFWMD, FARMS, EQIP, etc. — can sound like a big bowl of alphabet soup. But in reality, they represent much more than that and can save growers significant sums of money. Below is a breakdown that summarizes the various available funding sources growers can consider.

If you’re a grower looking for cost-share assistance with BMP projects, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ (FDACS) Office of Agricultural Water Policy (OAWP) is a good place to start. The Citrus Grove Renovation/Re-establishment Support Program is funded at $5.5 million. It provides cost-share funding for improvements to irrigation and nutrient management when replanting or re-establishing groves.

Qualifications include the following:

  • History of citrus production since at least 2008
  • Enrollment in the OAWP Citrus BMP program
  • Documentation of purchase of tree seedlings for replanting
  • Must be a minimum of 10 acres
  • Must consist of complete replanting in project blocks
  • Implementation assurance evaluation at end of period, including Mobile Irrigation Lab evaluation
  • Division of Plant Industry Compliance Agreement
  • Practices must be designed and installed to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) standards and specifications
  • Project must be completed on or before June 30, 2017

Eligible practices and improvements are reimbursed at 75 percent with a $250,000 cap. Engineering and design costs are reimbursed at 100 percent. Project costs can be split with other water management district programs or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as long as total combined reimbursement does not exceed 75 percent of eligible project costs.

Examples of cost-share items include stormwater-management improvements and upgrades, irrigation systems/components necessary for replanting, weather stations, soil moisture sensors, nutrient management improvements and more.

In December, the program was expanded to include the replacement of deteriorating irrigation main lines and laterals (transit pipes) when paired with a fully automated system. However, the program expansion is only available for groves in the Northern Everglades Estuary Protection Area, which includes parts of Highlands, Okeechobee, Martin, Polk, Osceola, Orange, Glades, Hendry, Palm Beach, Charlotte, Lee, St. Lucie and Lake counties.

Aerial view of a pond at Premier Citrus Management that the FARMS program helped fund. Photo courtesy of Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems (FARMS) program is an agricultural cost-share reimbursement program that reduces groundwater withdrawals through conservation and alternative-water-supply BMPs. FARMS is a partnership developed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) and FDACS.

Chris Zajac, FARMS program manager for the SWFWMD, says $6 million in cost-share funding is available annually, and the current funding period ends September 30, 2017. “The FARMS program is open year-round, and there is plenty of money available,” he says.

A grower must incur the cost of the project up front before applying for the FARMS funding. Typically, the cost-share funding is at 50 percent, but it can be as high as 75 percent in some areas.

Like most cost-share programs, FARMS is open not only to citrus growers, but to all ag producers. Zajac says a common FARMS project for citrus is tailwater recovery, which he says reduces the amount of potable groundwater use and improves water quality — potentially leading to an increase in yield.

Automation of irrigation systems can also be cost-shared through FARMS. “Electronic controls can save time, money and water,” says Zajac. Weather stations and soil moisture probes are additional items that fall under FARMS.

To be eligible for the program, growers must be in compliance with their water permits.

According to Aaron Keller, press secretary for Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, an example of a highly successful FARMS project was completed at Premier Citrus Management, LLC near Arcadia. The project consisted of three reservoirs to collect tailwater and surface water to offset groundwater used for supplemental irrigation over approximately 1,600 acres of citrus. The project resulted in water quantity savings and water quality benefits. Previously, Premier was withdrawing nearly 100 percent of its permitted groundwater quantities for irrigation. The quality of water used in groundwater irrigation was contributing not only to increased stresses on the citrus crop, but on the water quality in the surrounding watershed.

Keller reports that the completed project has exceeded the expectation for a 30 percent reduction in groundwater use. According to Keller, Premier’s Bryan Beswick says not only are the systems working beyond the original expectations, but that the performance is improving over time. Improved irrigation system efficiency has resulted in reduced fuel costs and air-quality impacts. The water-quality improvements have also resulted in slightly improved fruit yields. And according to the SWFWMD, water quality has significantly improved at five sites within the watershed.

The Mini-FARMS program, a spinoff of FARMS, is a cost-share program for ag operations of 100 acres or less that are implementing practices to conserve water and protect water quality within the SWFWMD. Growers can receive 75 percent of their project costs, up to $5,000 per project.

Mini-FARMS projects can include, but are not limited to: soil moisture probes/tensiometers, weather stations with evapotranspiration measurements, water quality and soil pH testing kits, soil and tissue testing, and irrigation pumps, controls, filtration and infrastructure.

To be eligible for Mini-FARMS, growers must be:

  • Actively engaged in agriculture for the last two years
  • In compliance with SWFWMD regulatory requirements
  • Enrolled in the applicable FDACS-approved BMP program

The St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) Agricultural Cost-Share Program assists growers with water conservation and reduction of nutrient runoff.

The application period for the program is once per year, typically beginning in May or June and concluding in August or September. The program has set aside $3 million for 2017, says Suzanne Archer, technical program coordinator – agricultural assistance. Of that figure, she notes that $1.5 million will be available in citrus-producing regions.

FARMS-funded project components at Hancock Grove include a surface-water irrigation pump station, filtration system, control culverts, and mainline pipe to connect the surface-water reservoir to the irrigation system. Photo courtesy of Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Examples of funded citrus projects have included variable-rate fertilizer application and irrigation-system retrofits (from overhead to drip). Other eligible projects include soil moisture and climate sensor telemetry, rainwater harvesting, subirrigation drain tile and tailwater recovery and reuse.

Cost-share could be up to 75 percent, not to exceed $250,000 annually, for the design, construction and implementation costs for approved projects.

The Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) offers an agricultural conservation cost-share program with ongoing enrollment. Darrell Smith, director for the district’s agricultural and environmental projects division, says cost-sharing is generally 75 percent for efficiency upgrades to irrigation systems, fertigation tanks, remote monitoring controls and other projects that increase water efficiency. Funds can be used on projects such as irrigation retrofits, new water-saving technologies and alternative water supplies.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NRCS. It’s a voluntary conservation program for farmers which promotes agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible goals. EQIP offers financial and technical help to install or implement structural and management practices on eligible ag land.

Florida citrus growers can receive cost-share funding from EQIP for irrigation systems, irrigation water management, nutrient management, erosion control, pollinator habitats, agrichemical handling facilities, conservation cover, critical area planting, combustion system improvement, windbreaks/shelterbelts, field borders, filter strips, irrigation reservoirs and integrated pest management.

A grower can receive a maximum $450,000 in EQIP funding, as authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill. The cost-share rates vary, but are typically 50 to 75 percent.

Key eligibility requirements include:

  • Established farm records with the Farm Service Agency
  • Adjusted gross income limit
  • Highly Erodible Land/Wetland Conservation compliance
  • If applying as an entity, must have a D-U-N-S Number (unique nine-digit identification number for each physical location of a business) and registration in the System for Award Management
  • Must own or have control of the land for the life of the contract, deed or lease

The application process is continual, although funding selections are typically made once per year.

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About the Author

Tacy Callies

Editor of Citrus Industry magazine