As a natural resource economist for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), a big part of my job is to help growers reach their economic and conservation goals in efficient ways.
Agriculture plays an important role in sustaining and improving Florida’s natural resources. We can increase this role by measuring the economic value of the ecological services that growers provide and by using that information to help implement policies that reward agricultural stewardship.
Farm economic sustainability is closely tied to environmental sustainability. Practices and technologies that reduce chemical inputs help to reduce costs and the amount of chemicals lost to the environment. Practices and technologies that help improve soil health — which may reduce chemical leaching or soil erosion — may also improve crop yields.
My team and I identify and examine the factors affecting the use of these conservation practices. We hope to help the farm economy by increasing the use of production practices that have positive ecological outcomes.
As an economist, my role is to provide insights that help manage scarce resources, like clean water, healthy soils, growers’ time and more. Economists are constantly looking at tradeoffs. We ask questions to better understand growers’ tradeoffs and incorporate what we learn into UF/IFAS Extension programming.
Because my work examines growers’ choices, I work closely with them to understand their production systems, the environments they work in, their challenges and how they make decisions. Much of this is learned during interactions with growers and through the surveys we design.
Some interesting insights from our work come from a best management practices adoption and cost survey we conducted. Through the survey, we found 55 percent of citrus growers use controlled-release fertilizer, and that most of these growers operate small or medium-sized farms. Controlled release fertilizer is more expensive than conventional fertilizer but releases nutrients gradually, making the nutrients available when the plant is more likely to use them.
Larger growers may use other practices that optimize fertilizer use. Those include fertigation, which allows them to carefully manage how much fertilizer is applied through the irrigation system.
This study also found that some citrus growers think that best management practices are not applicable or are too expensive. But the same research found that few growers think they do not have enough time to learn about a new practice or that there is no benefit to their yields. This could be an indication that these growers are willing to learn about a new practice and adopt it if it’s applicable and helps to increase net returns.
It is therefore our challenge to find the practices that work well for these operations, find ways to keep the costs down and to promote their use. Studies like these provide evidence of growers’ challenges and their perceptions.
The lessons learned from this study can be transferred to many other studies that want to increase the use of conservation practices on agricultural land: Farms are businesses, so conservation practices must be economically feasible and applicable to the production system if growers are going to adopt.
Tara Wade is an assistant professor of food and resources economics and a natural resource economist with the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center in Immokalee. Please contact her at email@example.com.