Florida Citrus Growers Face an Urban Future

Florida's farmers and ranchers will have to find other sources of revenue from their land if they hope to survive in an increasingly urban state. Fortunately, the state's rapid urbanization also offers opportunities for other revenue sources in the form of "green payments" for conserving land in an environmentally friendly manner.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Florida's farmers and ranchers will have to find other sources of revenue from their land if they hope to survive in an increasingly urban state.

Fortunately, the state's rapid urbanization also offers opportunities for other revenue sources in the form of "green payments" for conserving land in an environmentally friendly manner.

That was one of the messages scores of the state's citrus growers got Wednesday at the 2005 Florida Citrus Expo in Fort Myers. The industry's largest annual trade show, now in its 14th year, attracted more than 500 growers to the two-day event, which ended Thursday.

Florida's urban residents and developers are becoming more interested in preserving open spaces, according to several seminar speakers. Nobody wants commercial and residential development from the Atlantic to the Gulf coasts.

The state is heading in that direction as unprecedented amounts of agricultural land is being sold to developers, the speakers said.

If planners want to slow that process down, residents and local governments have to be willing to pay farmers and ranchers to keep their land out of development, said Pete Spyke, a Fort Pierce grower and grove manager who has worked with East Coast developers for the past decade on ways to do that.

Traditionally, developers and urban planners provide for open space only within the confines of a proposed residential or commercial project, he said. They're beginning to look beyond the borders and plan for open spaces over an entire county, or at least large, still undeveloped, sections of it.

One tool to preserve open space is to buy the development rights on agricultural land, Spyke said. States and local government have been doing that for many years through preservation programs such as Florida Forever.

Selling only the development rights allows growers and ranchers to retain ownership of the land and continue operating it for agriculture.

However, existing programs pay only It's also not enough incentive to keep growers from selling to developers, he said, and state and local governments don't have the money to buy enough land to avoid turning Florida into an urban peninsula.

One alternative is a regional planning concept that reduces sprawl by forcing commercial and residential developments into a core area while preserving surrounding areas as open spaces for agriculture, recreation, biodiversity and other uses, he said. The concept calls for preserving as much as 60 to 75 percent of the land around urban cores as open spaces.

Requiring that much open space increases the demand for rural property and thus increases the price developers are willing to pay for development rights, Spyke said.

But farmers and ranchers still need to produce a profit from the land after selling their development rights, said Spyke and Hilary Swain, the executive director of the Archbold Biological Station, an environmental research area in southern Highlands County. The station also owns and operates a 10,000-acre cattle ranch with about 3,000 head.

Swain told an audience of about 50 growers that many agricultural businesses could play an important role in managing ecological systems, such as groundwater recharge and pollution control, and get paid for doing it.

"Agriculture people bring important skills for managing the land," Swain said.

Archbold has received a $2 million grant to explore the feasibility of using its ranch land to remove environmentally harmful phosphorous picked up from rainwater running off urban and agricultural lands, she said.

Currently, state and federal governments pay millions of dollars for large-scale public works, such as canals and reservoirs, to capture runoff water before it pollutes lakes and rivers, Swain said. Once captured, the ground acts as a natural filter for phosphorous and other pollutants as the water percolates to the aquifer.

But, she added, "the state of Florida cannot buy all the ecological services it needs."

One alternative to large-scale projects might be paying farmers and ranchers for accomplishing the same task, Swain said. They could do so by building smaller water-control systems on their land to remove phosphorous and improve aquifer recharge, she said. The landowners would be paid based upon the amount of phosphorous removed. "Water retention areas can be competitive with public projects to control phosphorous runoff, and it can make a profit," Swain said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the South Florida Water Management District are funding the three-year grant to explore whether a small-scale water control system at Archbold might be effective and profitable, she said.

The program represents a developing concept called "green payments," in which agricultural landowners get paid for the environmental benefit they bring to the wider community, Swain said. Other kinds of programs could pay landowners for preserving wildlife habitat, providing natural recreation areas and other public benefits.

Some advocates say green payments can complement or replace the traditional crop subsidy programs. But Swain acknowledged no green payment programs exist yet.

"Things are happening both politically and in the marketplace to take these (programs) and make them a reality," said Fritz Roka, an agricultural economist at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Immokalee.

Spyke thinks green payments will save Florida agriculture.

"It will look different and operate differently than we do now, but it will still be farming," he said.

At other Citrus Expo seminars, Tom Spreen, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, discussed the economic outlook for the 2005-06 citrus season, which begins in October.

If early estimates of about 205 million boxes of oranges harvested during the season prove accurate, growers could get better prices for their fruit from the state's juice processors, Spreen told an audience of more than 100 growers. About 95 percent of the state's orange crop goes to juice.

A key factor buoying prices are the low juice inventories processors are beginning the season with, he said. By Sept. 30, processors will hold about a 24-week supply of orange juice, down from 30 weeks or more at the start of recent seasons.

In addition, the Brazilian crop for its 2005-06 season already under way is projected at about 300 million boxes, down from 350 million to 400 million boxes in recent years, Spreen said.

Both factors will combine with stable U.S. consumer demand to drive up the farm price for Florida oranges, he said.

Spreen predicted the average farm price for oranges would rise to 97 cents per pound solids, an industry standard for the amount of juice squeezed from citrus fruit. That compares to a 91-cent average for the recently completed 2004-05 season and a 71-cent average in 2003-04.

Growers also heard updates on the Citrus Canker Eradication Program and the marketing program at the Florida Department of Citrus in Lakeland.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News