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Farmers should consider alternatives to freezing crops

Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 00:02

 

Talking to an insurance company regarding a sinkhole under a home doesn't seem as pleasant as biting into a perfectly grown Florida strawberry, but for residents of eastern Hillsborough County the two are interconnected.

For decades, Florida berry farmers have pumped water on their profitable crops to form a thin layer of ice, which protects from freezing overnight temperatures. 

This usage may seem minor, but according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), a night of pumping can exploit nearly 1 billon gallons of water from Florida's aquifer. In turn, this quickly dries up the aquifer, and this loss of water under the ground can result in a sinkhole.

A near-annual outbreak of sinkholes are blamed on farmers who freeze their berries to insulate them from freezing temperatures, despite alternative methods for protecting the crops.

According to The Grower, a publication directed toward America's farmers, "An 11-day stretch of freezing weather in January 2010 created so much demand for groundwater that more than 140 sinkholes and 750 dry wells were reported in the region."

Strawberry farmers should take  advantage of a cost-sharing reimbursement program with  SWFWMD called FARMS: Facilitating Agricultural Resource Management Systems. According to Channel 10 News, this program hopes to be an incentive for farmers to use artificial coverings and alternative methods for protecting the crops. Its goals include offsetting millions of gallons of water in district "Caution Areas" and during freezes, according to its website.

Bob McDowell of Fancy Farms in Plant City is already setting an example for other farmers. He has invested in a Haygrove Tunnel, a greenhouse-like tarp structure that traps heat to protect the crops, for part of his 240-acre farm.

"You close the tunnels up,"McDowell told My Fox Tampa Bay, "It acts like an igloo and maintains the heat in the tunnel."

But, at $300,000 an acre, this is a hefty investment for a farmer.

John Stickles of Florida Pacific Farms in Dover has been trying another method: This winter, he covered about 20 acres of his farm with frost blankets, using steel stakes to hold the tarp-like blanket just inches above the crops, a cover that secludes the strawberry plants and traps heat, according to Channel 10 News.

The means for obtaining these protective systems are costly and time consuming, which has many growers turning their backs. But changing a routine that has lasted for generations takes effort from government resources and a willingness to adjust from Florida's cultivators. While spraying the strawberries with our natural supply of water saves them from overnight freezes, coverings instead can last a multitude of seasons and protect the safety of residents.

With help from SWFWMD, farmers should invest in ways to support both their crops and the environment. Dishing out money for these resources may seem futile, but that's a small price to pay for a salvaged Florida landscape.

Thomas Powers is an undeclared junior.

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