A plan to tailor rates for farm use of fertilizers continues to dig in roots in the Florida Senate.
The Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday advanced a bill (SB 1000) to adjust nutrient regulation based on needs of individual farms. The favorable vote came over the objections of environmental advocates who fear the measure waters down state standards.
But Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican and professional citrus grower, said some adaptation must occur to save the industry that grants Florida its identity.
“We are facing some dire matters,” Albritton said.
The Senator didn’t shy away from his own stake in the industry’s future. Rather, he leaned in with his expertise on the challenges faced by agriculture today. That includes citrus greening, the spread of an imported disease impacting Florida’s crops that can cause 20% to 40% of fruit planted in the spring to fall off the tree before harvest.
Researchers in the state continue to seek solutions. But until then, the Senator said farmers need flexibility to apply best practices.
Albritton characterized his legislation as a way to fine-tune the Clean Waterways Act signed into law in 2020. That bill codified many recommendations from a Blue-Green Algae Task Force formed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in the wake of harmful algal blooms in 2018.
The new bill would adjust blanket enforcement of fertilizer regulations, but it authorizes “rate tailoring,” which lets certified agronomics professionals work directly with farms to customize nutrient application plans with farmers. The Senator said all accountability measures from the legislation passed two years ago would remain in place.
But environmental advocates fear loosening standards for farmers will undo decades of environmental restoration efforts.
Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida, argued allowing certified professionals hired by farmers to make the call on rates would effectively create a workaround for agriculture to evade new water quality regulations.
“We have concerns with the waiver of liability, which is very broad as written,” she said. “It waives liability for virtually everyone involved… When we hire engineers to sign and seal drawings, they are held liable if those drawings are wrong.”
Speakers from Audubon Florida acknowledged the challenges facing the citrus industry but questioned why producers of other crops would be afforded the same rate tailoring possibilities. The group hinted its own opposition might be dropped should the legislation be amended to aid only citrus growers.
For Albritton’s part, he stressed the high demands for certification. At one point, Sen. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat, asked if Florida has enough individuals certified to meet the demands in the state based on the high professional standards laid out in the bill. “Regardless of whether or not there are enough, it is necessary,” he responded.
He also pushed back on any notion Florida farmers would knowingly adopt agriculture strategies that damage the environment.
In many ways, the bill highlights the odd tension between agriculture and the environment, with conservative activists acknowledging farmland is preferable to urban sprawl while still raising fears about pollution discharge. Crops, while a source of nutrient-loading themselves, depend on healthy water and clean soil, making a pristine environment a benefit to an industry living off the land.
But Albritton said if nothing else, pure economics will stop farmers from abusing the proposed rate tailoring system.
“This isn’t going to be a free-for-all. Fertilizer is incredibly expensive,” he said. “Think of it from a business approach. During the pandemic, fertilizer rates went up 200%. I don’t know a single farmer today making enough money to throw it away or light it on fire. They’re not going to do it.”