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Date of Issue: January 28, 2009


Farming debate to take to the water this week

The debate between providing affordable food for the masses and the environmental needs to protect Mother Earth has been longstanding. It appears the newest battleground will be the Gulf of Mexico.

Say you’re a farmer with a grove of orange trees. The annual citrus yield appears to be a pretty low-impact way to make a few bucks. Sure, the trees need to be fertilized. Watering is important during our low-rainfall winters. Pesticides have to be sprayed to keep the bugs at bay, but hey, it’s not all that bad to the environment, right?

As The New York Times pointed out last week, “Making orange juice is relatively straightforward: the oranges are picked by hand, trucked to the plant, squeezed, pasteurized and packed into cartons and shipped by train to distribution points around the country.”

PepsiCo is the company that owns Florida citrus magnate Tropicana, formerly headquartered in Bradenton. It hired a company to measure the carbon footprint created to produce the juice. Carbon footprint is the new green buzzword to indicate just how much pollution, notably carbon dioxide, is created to provide a food or service. More carbon means more greenhouse gases and a greater impact to global warming.

The company figured the trucking from field to plant, processing at the plant and then shipping the juice to packagers, plus the packaging, would cause the bulk of the carbon footprint in creating orange juice.

Not really.

“The biggest single source of emissions was simply growing oranges,” the Times reported. “Citrus groves use a lot of nitrogen fertilizer, which requires natural gas to make and can turn into a potent greenhouse gas when it is spread on fields.”

To cut to the chase, PepsiCo found that a half-gallon carton of OJ causes about 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere.

To bring that number into some meaning, an unscientific study by Sandscript indicates that one plastic grocery bag full of oranges can produce about a gallon of juice and results in 7.5 pounds of carbon dioxide released into the air.

 

Fish farming

The Gulf of Mexico may be the next battleground on the feed versus green front.

Fish farming isn’t a new concept. Mote Marine Laboratory has a facility in eastern Sarasota County used to grow sturgeon. Mote also produces redfish and snook fingerlings for stocking the bays.

The key to Mote’s environmental success in farming fish is a closed system. Water in the farm ponds is cleaned and recirculated. Excess food and food byproducts are filtered from the water so it doesn’t enter the waters of Sarasota Bay or the Gulf of Mexico.

That filtration does not occur in open-ocean fish farming. In the ocean farm, the basic concept of the aquatic fish farm is to rig a set of huge nets in the water to contain the fish. They’re fed without the expensive filtration systems of the ponds, and poop and excess food just flows out of the mesh.

The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has been studying a policy that would open federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico to commercial fish farming. A decision on the measure is expected when the group meets Jan. 26-28 in Mississippi.

The Ocean Conservancy, an environmental organization, opposes open-ocean fish farms.

“While aquaculture may seem a simple and obvious solution to increased global demand for seafood,” the group said, “countries that have allowed the practice have incurred serious environmental problems. The proposed aquaculture plan is unscientific and does not adequately deal with the environmental, socioeconomic and liability problems that have been associated with aquaculture operations overseas.

“The use of open-net pens, for example, allows concentrated fish waste to flow untreated into the ocean, farmed fish to escape their nets, and disease to be transmitted to wild fish,” the group continued. “In addition, commercial fishermen could face a deluge of farmed fish in the market, which could affect the price of wild fish.”

The plan, if approved, would be the first of its kind in the United States.

Ocean Conservancy officials are not totally opposed to open-water aquaculture, but state they prefer the establishment of national standards approved by Congress for any such plan.

 

Baby, it’s cold outside

What weather experts described as an arctic blast of cold air swept across Florida last week. Air temperatures were in the 20s as far south as Lake Okeechobee.

Cold air means crop freezes for farmers. Assessments are still coming in on how cold and how long the cold lasted to determine crop damage, according to Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson.

More than citrus was at stake in the bitter frost. Crops at risk included strawberries, blueberries, snap beans, celery, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant, endive/escarole, peppers, radishes and squash, tropical fish and horticulture.

Strawberry crops are particularly delicate right now, with the berries on the bushes only weeks away from the prime harvest. Too much cold air turns the berries into mush.

Tropical fish farming is another delicate crop. Eastern Hillsborough County is home to a huge fish farming industry that encompasses hundreds of acres of ponds that are difficult to warm as the weather cools.

Bronson said that while the entire citrus belt experienced very cold temperatures and growers are reporting damage, citrus industry officials say that the Indian River region, which produces the bulk of Florida's fresh fruit market, fared relatively well.

Let’s hope that last week’s bitter cold is the end of Florida’s winter for this season.

Unfortunately, it was too cold for some of us native Floridians to get full enjoyment of the Manatee County Fair, which ended Sunday.

 

Sandscript factoid

According to Bronson, there are more than 40,000 farmers in Florida who grow more than 280 different commercial crops. Florida farmers annually produce more than 35 billion pounds of food and more than 1.5 million tons of livestock feed.

Florida is the nation's ninth agricultural state overall, ranking first in citrus production, and second in the production of vegetables and horticulture products.

And you thought all the Sunshine State produced were Disney denizens and sun, sand and surf.

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