Florida growers battle drought and heat from climate change

Effects of climate change prove menacing to the future of Florida farms as rising temperatures and irregular water availability threaten cash crops.

Climate change encompasses a number of factors often overlooked by individuals, including temperature extremes, rising sea levels, melting ice in arctic regions, fluctuating weather patterns and decreasing amounts of freshwater. These factors affect regions all over the globe, but are a primary threat to Florida agriculture.

After a 2014 Census report designated Florida as the third most populated state, it became clear that the state was committed to increased expansion.

The increase of residents puts a strain on diminishing natural resources, making sustaining a growing population virtually impossible. The natural resource on the frontline of this situation is freshwater.

Without a stable source of freshwater in Florida, climate change forces farmers to invest in irrigation systems.

A Bushel of Woe from Trevor Green on Vimeo.

“We use wells to water our trees; it’s just not the same as rainwater,” said Rolando Zedan, owner of Redland Ranch, an organic fruit ranch in Miami-Dade County.

“The well doesn’t reach every leaf. It mostly gets the root system wet which absorbs the water slowly. They grow quicker with the rainwater.”

Rolando Zedan and wife Carmen worry about the future of their organic ranch.

Rolando Zedan and wife Carmen worry about the future of their organic ranch. (Photo by Camille Von Simson)

Primary sources of freshwater in Florida are the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and aquifers, all at risk of becoming brackish upon contact with saltwater from rising sea levels.

“We need freshwater flowing through the Everglades and into Big Cypress and into Florida Bay, and we need it clean and free of human pollution,” said Gina Maranto, director of the undergraduate program in ecosystem science and policy and coordinator of the graduate program in environmental science and policy at the University of Miami.

Aside from the threat of dwindling water sources, the area’s high temperatures also pose a threat. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the past decade has been the warmest on record.

Rising temperatures lead to evaporation and water movement within plants, severely dehydrating the plants. While some plant species thrive in warmer temperatures and handle reduced amounts of water well, certain types of native plants would be at risk of dying. The potential growth experienced by populations of invasive species and strains of plants that typically do not grow in this climate would eventually prove detrimental to the pre-existing environment.

Florida is a hub of citrus and sugarcane, among other profitable crops.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Florida accounts for 65 percent of all citrus production in the United States and ranks seventh in agricultural exports with a value of $4 billion.

With such revenue emanating from the growth and cultivation of agricultural products, a blow to the availability of these exportable crops translates into economic loss.

Despite the current environmental situation, farmers are finding refuge in organic and sustainable farming. Compared with traditional farming methods, organic farming is meant to reduce the presence of pesticides and certain chemicals found in crops grown conventionally.

“With organic farming, there’s no pesticide usage, there’s no herbicides, there’s nothing used to alter the genetic scope of the produce,” said Jenni Williams, communications director at Florida Organic Growers. “Because you’re not using those things, there’s no runoff when it rains.”

Farms certified as organic must be free of pesticides for more than three years and cannot possess any contaminants in order to earn the title, Williams said. Even though sustainable and organic farming methods differ, their objectives often merge as farmers conserve the natural state of soil and avoid soil erosion.

Some grocers have taken up initiatives to ensure the organic properties of their products.

“If there’s a label with four numbers that start with a four, that’s conventional; if there’s a label that starts with an eight and has five numbers, that’s a GMO (genetically modified organism),” said Giselle Orentas, health coach and founder of La Vida Organica. “If there’s a label that starts with a nine and has five numbers, that’s organic.”

A variety of local and large-scale markets, like Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s, have even made it their mission to sell strictly organic food and work only with farmers meeting health guidelines.

“Consumers can help by promoting organic agriculture and promoting sustainable activities, reducing all the gas levels because these are also contributing to climate change,” said Krish Jayachandran, associate professor at the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University.

“The consumers can definitely help to bring down climate change slowly, and this can take 50 years.”