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Farming Today . . . and Tomorrow

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Cut sugarcane.

Trends in farm production have changed significantly in response to factors affecting the best use of the land, such as consumer demands. Beef and dairy cattle are down, while sod and horticultural products are up. Twenty-first century farming in the Glades is now mostly sugarcane, with smaller fields for vegetables, sod grass, and rice. But growing vegetables presents new challenges: restoration projects in the Everglades, and laws that prohibit the use of certain chemicals and pesticides. Modern farming methods include industrial agriculture, which involves large fields and/or numbers of animals. It also includes a lot of pesticides and fertilizers, and high levels of mechanization.

Farm machinery has improved efficiency and crop production. Other recent advances in agriculture include hydroponics, organic farming, better management of soil nutrients, and improved weed control. As many as 13 Palm Beach County farmers practice organic farming, using renewable resources, soil conservation, and water to improve the environment for future generations. Florida Crystals is the only sugar grower to produce certified organic sugar and is a pioneer in growing certified organic rice.

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Peppers at packing plant.

Pero Family Farms is the only commercial hydroponic grower in Palm Beach County, on 8,000 acres in Delray Beach. With today’s year-round demand for fresh vegetables, Pero uses a state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse operation to grow vegetables in a large airplane hanger. While only 13,000 bell peppers can grow on one acre of land, Pero Farms harvests 228,000 bell peppers from one hydroponic acre. As of 2004, they employed twenty-eight family members.

Some people predict an end to agriculture in the Glades. Farming depends on the muck soil that lies over the limestone bedrock. The muck has subsided over the years, caused by drainage and cultivation of the land, compaction by machinery, burning, oxidation, and shrinkage caused by dehydration.

Scientists and farmers are trying different methods to preserve the soil. Some growers practice what is called “successive planting.” Instead of harvesting a crop, tilling the soil, and then letting it sit bare, they plant the next crop right away to help preserve the muck. Another approach is to flood the field for several months, which is also great for water birds.

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The southern Everglads in 2001.

There are other issues to face: How can we produce enough food for a growing population? How can we make farms profitable while protecting the environment and natural resources? How can we avoid upsetting the Everglades Restoration Project with harmful chemicals from fertilizers? Farmers already limit the use of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus so rainwater runoff will carry fewer contaminates into waterways and wetlands.

Farmers must decide what to do in the future, as they face muck depletion and the westward movement of developments surrounding their farms. Some of them sell their land for more money than they can earn from farming. Others look for new ways to keep farming, like hydroponics. Still others sell their farmland to local or state governments, who will protect and conserve it. Those farmers who persist will come up with new methods to provide us with the food we eat. Though there are problems, farmers are resourceful and can overcome the challenges.

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