Report: Rural broadband investment could add $65 billion to US economy

Farmers facing extreme weather hardships, unsure trade market access, and declining commodity prices have a light at the end of the tunnel: rural broadband and precision ag technology adoption.

According to recent reporting from BroadbandNow, over half of U.S. farms are in a declining revenue situation year-over-year, yet an initial investment of around $35 billion to $40 billion could net the U.S. economy at-large an additional $65 billion on an annual basis.

Although spurring rural connectivity expansion has long been an ongoing effort within U.S. agriculture, the FCC reports that as of press time 39% of rural residents still don’t have access to high-speed internet. There is no government agency currently that tracks or reports on internet connectivity by farm or livestock operations.

The long term goal, according to BroadbandNow’s report, is to have accessible broadband internet available on 95% of agricultural land by the year 2025.

Currently, the broadband dilemma (or lack of connectivity) in rural America is hampering precision ag technology adoption—the very technologies we’ll need to overcome a reported 70% increase in global food demand by 2050 – and creating a “significant disparity between the farmers who have access to high-speed internet and those who do not.”

It’s a pretty interesting report, although focused mostly on the larger acreage row crops, but it might be worth your time and a quick read to stay up on the latest regarding farm internet connectivity.

broadbandnow.com for full report

What it's really like to grow hops

Production of hops in the U.S. continues to climb, with a record high of 107 million pounds harvested last season, according to figures from the USDA. While this growth is still nothing compared to the tree fruit industry overall in the U.S., interest in hops as an alternative crop — especially among fruit growers — continues to brew.

Dan Wiesen, co-owner of Empire Hops Farm in Empire, Mich., grows cherries and apples and used to grow apricots, peaches, and asparagus. About 10 years ago, Michigan State University put on a presentation on hops cultivation as interest was growing. This in turn piqued Wiesen’s interest.

“The reason we looked into growing hops was for some diversification. We didn’t grow those other fruits anymore except for apples,” he says. “We had some ground that was pretty low and it’s not a good apple site.”

For Patrick Smith, vice president of B.T. Loftus Ranches in Yakima, Wash., his family made the opposite move, having farmed hops for more than 50 years before moving into tree fruit.

“After a period of years in the 1980s where conditions were quite good in hops, we decided to take some of the profits from those years and diversify our business and do apples,” he says.

But how different is hops growing from traditional tree fruit? Smith and Wiesen talk about the differences and similarities between the two types of crops.

Different Crops, Same Challenges

Both Wiesen and Smith say that hops fit well with tree fruit orchard tasks. Hops require strings to be hand-tied to the trellis in the early spring, followed by a manual training of the hop bines onto the string that supports the plants’ vertical growth for the duration of the growing season. These activities are very labor-intensive in March through May, a time when orchard labor needs may be lower.

“Sometimes of the year it works out quite well, particularly in mid-spring where the hop labor needs are very high and the needs in tree fruit are relatively lower,” Smith says. “As those spring labor needs in hops taper off, things in the orchards would begin to pick up with thinning.”

Harvest is a challenge for Smith because hop harvest tends to fall right in the thick of apple harvest. But Wiesen says optimistically that hop harvest keeps his labor busy in between cherry and grape and apple harvests. But, no surprise, labor is still a key need with hops, and that’s just exacerbated with an operation that has other crops picking at the same time.

Key Differences

“One of the biggest differences between the two is kind of the scale of the two and how hop growing and hop farms tend to be very concentrated,” Smith says. “To be an economically viable unit in PNW requires somewhere in the order of a minimum of 450 acres of hop production.”

Another key difference between hops and tree fruit production is the need to be located close to a processing facility. Smith says in the Pacific Northwest most operations harvest, dry, and process their own hops.

“Once we cut the bine in the field, it needs to be processed and begin drying in a few hours at the absolute maximum. We would prefer to see that within one hour. The farther those fields are from the processing facility, the more expensive it becomes to harvest that field,” he says. “A lot of apple growers may be 100 miles or more away from their CA (Controlled Atmosphere) and packing facilities. A typical hop farm would be about 600 acres of hops, and those fields would largely be within 10 to 12 miles of the harvest facility.”

The risks for both hops and tree fruit are inherently different, Smith says.

The production demands are also different.

“Yields on hops, at least in our area, tend to be less variable than yields on apples. Every individual cone is not weighed and graded like it is in apples,” he says. “When we’re looking at our apple production, we’re trying to get the greatest percentage of fruit in that right size/right color/right grade for the fresh market.”

Smith notes that, fittingly, the hop industry is “prone to hangovers.” Once processed, the cones can be stored for a long time.

“If we have a big crop one year, a record crop, that inventory can persist in the global system, in the global supply chain, for many years,” he says. “The industry is prone to long cycles. We’ve been in a very good cycle for most hop growers for 6 to 10 years of pretty good market conditions. That’s unprecedented that it’s been that long of an up-cycle.”

Prior to that, Smith says there were about 15 years of poor market conditions, and the number of hop growers in the Yakima Valley was cut in half.

“It wasn’t very many years ago where our apple production was subsidizing our hop production,” he says. “That’s a great example of why diversification is important. It’s important for all of us to remember that all industries move in cycles. We need to be mindful of where in the cycle we are.”

Still Want to Grow Hops?

So, even after all that, you’re still interested? First things first, your climate needs to be right if you’re looking to add hops. Smith points out that the hops growing season is quite long, so locations with snow on the ground into April would not be suitable.

“Hops are plants that are influenced by the length of daylight, so it’s kind of like a mum,” Wiesen says. “When the days get shorter they change from a vegetative state to a reproductive state. You have to have 15 to 15½ hours of sunlight in order to grow them properly.”

Smith says a sufficient period of dormancy is necessary, too.

“If you’re in a region where you don’t get a good hard frost for a number of weeks in the winter, your area is not ideal for hop production,” he says.

Even if you have a suitable climate, before you plant, it’s critical to have a market for your hops.

“I would really start with developing a market before you make the investment,” Smith says. “It’s just like fruit growing or any other new business. It’s a lot of work, and if you’re not sure you can sell what you produce, it’s tough to recommend somebody put in that amount of work with no guarantee or expectation that they’re going to be able to sell it.”

It’s no easy task to get set up in hops, but experience with other high-density fruit crops may give you a leg up.

“The cost to get established is pretty high. It’s about $15,000 per acre to get started, that’s just to get it planted, that’s not for any care afterward,” Wiesen says. “For people who do grapes or high-density apples, that transition to hops will be easier for them because they are used to putting in a lot of money up front and more detail care. There’s a lot of labor that’s involved also, and there’s labor available on those farms that grow fruit.”

Understanding that up-front cost, it’s not only essential to have a market for your hops. You have to produce a large crop, or at least a consistent amount to make it worth the brewery’s while to contract with you.

“I can’t take a bucket of bolts to GM and say ‘Can you buy these from me? They’re really good bolts,’” he says. “The scale that it has to be done on makes it very difficult for breweries to deal with small crops. You can’t make money on an acre of corn, an acre of soybeans, or an acre of almost anything that pays.”

Wiesen also says it’s important to understand what varieties will work in your region, too. Some varieties popular with breweries may not be successful in your climate.

“Talk to your breweries you are selling to and find out the varieties that they are looking for and they use and need. Find out what they want and what you can grow in your area as well,” he says.

It’s also important to consider that hops are a food product and there are specific food safety standards and guidelines to follow.

“It hasn’t been hard to adapt to that because we’ve been doing it for years with fresh market apples. We have a number of inspections, we do it every year. We have a GAP certification and a LEAP certification,” he says. “I can tell people now we can guarantee that people are going to be more successful than we were. They don’t have to learn this stuff because we’ve made those mistakes.”

Christina Herrick is a former Senior Editor of American Fruit Grower magazine

Line between good cold and bad cold for citrus

The level of interest and curiosity associated with North Florida and South Georgia citrus production is escalating. Some Floridians are reserving judgement, some are convinced that it is going to be a disaster, and others wish they could magically relocate their groves and infrastructure to the Northern counties. Why the variance of opinion? It seems what some view as a disadvantage, others view as an advantage. Let’s take a deeper dive into the attractions and the cautions.

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a hundred times: The past few decades have produced less extreme cold temperatures, and the climate in Lake City is akin to what growers experienced in Central Florida in the 1970s. Rather than base this article on innuendo and gut hunches, I reached out to Daniel Brouillette, Climate Services Specialist at the Florida Climate Center, Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies at Florida State University. Mr. Brouillette pulled temperature data from the National Centers for Environmental Information (part of NOAA) from a range of sample locations in Central Florida, South Florida, the Indian River District, and North Florida. The focus was to examine the number of nights below 28°F. The assumption is that such nights may not cause catastrophic damage, but conventional wisdom would indicate that they certainly are an indication of elevated risk (with leaves, limbs and/or fruit). The results of the study are quite interesting.

What Does the Data Show?

Short of doing any rigorous statistical analysis, a casual review of the graph does reveal some interesting trends. The central, coastal, and southern locations (Orlando, Vero Beach, Bartow, and LaBelle) have experienced fewer days in the target cold temperature range than was true in the 1970s. The contrast is most significant since the year 2000.

While Lake City and Perry show a clear downward trend in the number of days in the target temperature range, they still show significantly more cold nights than the Southern locations. The downward trend is not as clear with Quincy, except the fact that the 1970s were significantly colder than the other three observed decades. If you look at this data alone, it would be hard to conclude that the weather in Lake City today mirrors the weather in Orlando in the 1970s. But perhaps the target temperature range doesn’t tell the whole story. Is there good cold and bad cold?

Steady Cooling Vs. Rapid Shifts

The freezes of the 1980s wreaked havoc on Florida’s citrus industry. While there were record lows recorded in many areas in 1983 and 1989, it was the lack of acclimation or pre-conditioning that amplified the devastation. Relatively warm days were followed by extreme cold days.

Citrus trees will acclimatize when exposed to longer periods of gradually cooler temperatures. We see this with regularity in other states and production areas. Such trees are capable of handling much colder temperatures than trees that experience rapidly declining temperatures. Though rootstock and scion selection can help bolster the overall cold hardiness of a citrus planting, common varieties such as orange, tangerine, and even grapefruit seem to be more forgiving of colder temperatures when gradually exposed to more cool nights through a legitimate fall season. There are some beautiful grapefruit, navel orange, and Temple plantings in the border counties.

Dr. George Yelenosky, USDA Orlando, published an article in Plant Physiology in 1975 titled “Cold Hardening in Citrus Stems.” In this article, Yelenosky identified a two-week period with average day/night temperatures at 60°F to 40°F to establish cold hardening or acclimation.

Dr. José Chaparro, a Citrus Breeder with UF/IFAS, suggests that it may be informative to explore the ratio of the number of nights below 28°F, when proper acclimation occurred, with nights below 28°F when no such acclimation occurred. Although we were unable to use the available data to make this comparison, Brouillette summed it up nicely by stating: “I can say that, although freezes do occur less often in the Southern locations, they are more likely to come without any period of acclimation (i.e., high temperatures around 60°F and lows around 40°F).  In the Northern locations, although freezes occur more often, they are more often preceded by a period of acclimation.”  It would be a fascinating project for a graduate student to identify the geographic borderline (for each commercially significant variety), south of which the risk of freeze damage actually increases in an un-acclimated state.

Cooler Area Advantage?

Survivability is one thing but achieving superior fruit quality is another advantage of colder production areas that is rarely discussed. Northern counties are often able to achieve superior peel color that in many cases resembles that of a Mediterranean climate. Degreening is not generally needed, whereas degreening is now used throughout the season further south. Fruit grown in northern counties tend to achieve fruit size that is typical of Florida and subtropical areas. The combination of size and color is an attractive combination for growers.

Just One Night

Asian citrus psyllid (ACP) pressure is much lower in Northern counties. ACP and HLB are present, but not nearly at the level further south. Combine this with cheaper land prices and an ample supply of water for irrigation and freeze protection (some groves have separate poly lines for each function) and it almost makes a compelling case. However, the skeptical grower and nurseryman will tell you, “it only takes one night, and all is lost.” One night of sustained temperatures at 20°F or below could refocus the argument. Northern growers remain confident that they can handle the cold through variety selection, elevated microjet freeze protection, and natural pre-conditioning of the trees.

Author’s note: Special appreciation to Daniel Brouillette for his research and the National Centers for Environmental Information (part of NOAA) for this data.

Peter Chaires is the executive director of the New Varieties Development & Management Corp.

Florida farmers look for high ground in raging water debate

Algae blooms and red tides have visited Florida for generations. But in 2018, when a red tide overlapped with a blue-green algae outbreak in a horrific manner, it placed a renewed emphasis on gaining a better understanding how they are triggered and ways to mitigate and reduce their occurrence.

What is known is that nutrient-rich water can enhance and prolong both freshwater algal blooms and red tides originating from the Gulf that get pinned along the shoreline by currents. In 2018, as both phenomena persisted for months, finger pointing ensued on who was to blame for seeding lakes, estuaries, and coastlines with the nutrients that were enhancing the problem. Agriculture was often at the center of the blame game as media and politicians fed off the headline-creating debate.

Calmer Conversations

While the debate remains hot, calmer conversations have been taking place since the troubles of 2018. That is partly being driven by the Blue-Green Algae Task Force appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in February 2019. Its work and other topics were covered during a recent panel discussion during the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association Annual Conference in Palm Beach. Participating on the panel were Ernie Barnett, Executive Director of the Florida Land Council; Dr. Wendy Graham, Director of the University of Florida’s Water Institute and member of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force; and Noah Valenstein, Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The panel noted that last year’s water woes pointed out the need for more information and transparency on actions being taken to protect the state’s water quality. That has been part of the task force’s mission to find out where the gaps in information and data exist and provide recommendations on how to fill those gaps.

“We have seen a lot of effort in the past year to create public gatherings where the state can come in and present the best information we have and what we are doing about it,” Valenstein noted.

Barnett noted that it became nearly impossible for the public to differentiate between the two events occurring along the coasts in 2018. “These red tides proliferate in the Gulf, and since 1950, we have had 59 red tides,” he said. “Typically, when you look at mortality of dolphins and sea life, it is driven more by red tide. But, since both were happening at the same time, blame started to be shifted toward land-based activities [which feed blue-green algae]. That is where agriculture came into the discussion.”

In 2018, a large algal bloom formed on Lake Okeechobee, which was sent to the coast in lake discharges via the Caloosahatchee River. Barnett said it is no surprise that nutrients in the Okeechobee basin are largely from agriculture because it is the dominant activity in that region.

“The Okeechobee basin is predominantly agriculture with the exception of the headwaters, which is being impacted by what is happening [urban-based] in Orlando and Osceola County,” Barnett said. “The same goes for the Suwannee basin. But if you look at the Rainbow River, it is going to be influenced mostly by urban activity. Land-use activities are going to drive the types of nutrient loads and how water bodies will be impaired.”

He added that agriculture has worked to better manage nutrient inputs and water movement off the farm through various BMP programs. And that all land activities – not just agriculture — feed into the blue-green algae outbreaks, including septic, urban stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment, and more.

More Data Needed

What has become clear is that more information and science are needed to determine the impacts of current practices and to better predict future blooms and tides and their duration.

“For all the BMPs and how we are living in our urban, suburban, and agricultural lands, we need to be able to quantify how well practices are working so we can design regional water treatments systems to pick up where [best practices] leave off,” Graham said. “For stormwater treatment and agricultural BMPs, we have heard some real questions about their efficacy, so there is probably new science needed to better quantify how effective these practices can be on the landscape scale. We must recognize that we all live, eat, and work here, so what can’t be managed at the BMP level will require regional [water] treatment. We have known for a long time that we need large water storage to prevent these nutrients from loading natural systems.”

Valenstein added before the state begins looking at new policies, it’s important to get a better handle on how current regulations are being implemented and investigate whether the supposed benefits from those regulations are being achieved.

“We must clearly identify the benefits of the BMPs and research them in all geographic regions of the state to see what results we are getting out of what is already on the books,” he said. “The same goes for stormwater.”

Task Force Recommendations

In late September, the Blue-Green Algae Task Force released the draft of its consensus document, which lays out priority areas related to water quality and suggests actions that can be taken to address each sector. The document focused on Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPS), agricultural BMPs, septic tanks, sanitary sewer overflows, and stormwater treatment.

In BMAP regions, agricultural BMPs are statutorily required to be adopted and implemented and are presumed to be reducing environmental impacts in those areas. According to the draft, only 75% of eligible agricultural parties within the Lake Okeechobee BMAP area are enrolled in an appropriate BMP. Enrollment numbers are considerably less in other BMAP areas.

The task force recommends that action be taken to encourage increased BMP enrollment in all regions of the state. The group also recommends that growers enrolled in BMP programs maintain accurate records to demonstrate they are implementing BMPs and that those records are verified by the appropriate regulatory authority and available to the public.

There are limited data available outside of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) that demonstrate BMPs’ environmental benefits. The task force recommends that sampling be conducted to verify that BMPs are having the desired impact in reducing nutrient loads in waterways.

The draft document suggests: “Reporting of input reductions for all operations receiving a presumption of compliance and the implementation of sampling programs to assess the effectiveness of sector-specific BMPs intended to reduce nutrient loading to adjacent water bodies should be initiated.”

The group also recommends that BMP manuals should undergo regular review to reflect new knowledge about nutrient impacts on crop yields and water quality. The manuals also should reflect technological advancements that can help reduce nutrient leaching and runoff.

There are many details that must be sorted out after the task force’s guidance receives public comment and is presented to the legislature for all the lawmaking and funding that must follow. During the panel discussion, Barnett cautioned that changes to the agricultural BMP program must be technically and economically feasible.

Graham echoed those thoughts pointing out the ecosystem services agriculture provides. “We need for the state to consider some form of payment for environmental services to encourage that these lands stay agricultural and underdeveloped,” she noted. “These lands have wildlife values and water storage potential. It makes me very nervous considering solid urban development from Daytona Beach to Tampa and all those water recharge areas that could be paved over. Right now, BMPs are practical and economically feasible to reduce nutrients, but there might be some things growers could do that are valuable to [protecting water resources] and not harm their bottom line. As a society, it may be cheaper helping growers to keep nutrients out of the system versus having to pay to take them out of water systems later.”

The panelist agreed that the water quality challenge can only be addressed by following science and all stakeholders working together toward solutions.

“The main point is not one single sector is responsible for these [bloom and tide events], and not one single sector is going to be able to solve these problems,” Barnett noted.

Strength in Numbers

As the water debate heats up, a coalition of more than 20 leading agricultural groups, business, and institutions have come together to represent and speak with one voice on behalf of agriculture. Their mission is to seek comprehensive solutions to harmful algal blooms in Florida that involve all stakeholders — residents, business, municipalities, utilities, agriculture, and others.

Some of the group’s legislative priorities include:

Adequate funding for Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Agricultural Water Policy

Funding for various water storage and treatment projects on public and private lands

Funding for new research on finding implementable solutions to mitigate red tide and blue-green algae

Support cost-share funding for sewer and septic conversions

Requirement for proper septic system maintenance

Support funding to expedite repairs to the Herbert Hoover dike on Lake Okeechobee

Giles is editor of Florida Grower

Reasons to be thankful for 4R advocates

I’m grateful to everyone who demonstrates professionalism in Florida’s fields, groves, nurseries, and ranches. One opportunity to say thanks to nutrient management standouts (during the holiday season) will be during the inaugural 4R Field Day planned for Nov. 22. Starting at 10 a.m. in the barn at Jones Potato Farm in Parrish, this event will feature Florida’s four nationally recognized nutrient stewards. In exchange for their stories (we won’t make them sing for their supper), they and all the attendees will be treated to a pre-Thanksgiving feast catered by a local Future Farmers of America chapter.

Florida’s national 4R Advocates — Alan Jones (2013), Gary Reeder (2017), Glenn Beck (2018), and Dustin Grooms (2019) will share their stories of integrating the 4Rs – the right source of nutrients at the right rate, right place, and right time – into their farming practices. And here’s a shout-out to their fertilizer consultants — Nutrien Ag Solutions’ Dennis Coleman (Jones/Reeder), Griffin Fertilizer’s Rob Watson, and Chemical Dynamics’ Jerrod Parker whose work helped these Florida growers earn this honor.

Sponsors for the event and the complimentary lunch are The Nature Conservancy, The Fertilizer Institute, Florida Fertilizer & Agrichemical Association, and The Mosaic Company.

I know we have many growers and crop consultants who practice the 4Rs (Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place). FFAA and Florida’s Certified Crop Advisers program are working to give these dedicated stewards the recognition they deserve. As such, FFAA promotes the opportunity for professionals to earn a 4R Nutrient Management Specialist (NMS) certification from the International Certified Crop Adviser (ICCA) program. This specialty certification builds upon the nutrient, soil, and water components of the International CCA Certification. Earning this specialty certification demonstrates the crop adviser’s proficiency in working with the 4R concept and building it into nutrient management planning.

Passing this challenging exam is one more way Florida’s ag community can demonstrate we are committed to growing high-quality crops, raising healthy livestock, and protecting our Florida waters.

The format of the 4R NMS exam is 50 multiple-choice questions and may include scenarios where the examinee will be provided data tables and figures to use to derive the correct answer.

A pre-requisite to the 4R NMS certification is the Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) certification. The CCA exams are now web-based and will be monitored by a proctor via the examinee’s webcam. Register by Dec. 13 to take the exam in 2020. You can find registration information for the CCA exams and the specialty certifications at certifiedcropadviser.org/exams.

The ICCA promotes this certification stating: “The 4R Nutrient Management Program considers the integration of agronomic practices with economic analysis and environmental interaction, all considered at the local field level, as well as social impacts for the community, and for downstream stakeholders.”

The ICCA adds that the 4R NMS certification is not a substitute for federal and state nutrient management rules and programs.

Mary Hartney is the president/executive director of the Florida Fertilizer & Agrichemical Association

Taco-Stuffed Florida Bell Peppers

Ingredients

3 large Florida bell peppers (your favorite color), halved lengthwise, seeds removed

1 pound lean ground Florida beef

2 Florida tomatoes, diced

1 package taco meat seasoning for 1 pound of ground beef

1 cup onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

12 ounces Colby jack cheese (or your favorite), shredded

1 cup tortilla chips, crushed salsa and sour cream for garnish

1 teaspoon olive oil Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

Preparation

Preheat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Add olive oil to preheated sauté pan. Add chopped onion to the pan and cook until translucent. Add garlic and ground beef to the cooking onions. Brown ground beef and drain any excess fat. Add the taco seasoning mix and diced tomatoes; stir ingredients to combine. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Add about 4 ounces of the cheese to the beef mixture and stir to combine. Evenly stuff each pepper half with the beef mixture. Top each stuffed pepper with the rest of the cheese. Place stuffed peppers on a cookie sheet and bake in preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove stuffed peppers from oven and evenly top them with the crushed tortilla chips. Place the peppers back in the oven for another 5 minutes or until tortilla chip topping is golden brown and filling mixture and cheese are bubbly. Remove stuffed peppers from oven and let cool slightly. Serve warm with salsa and sour cream.

freshfromflorida.com

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