What We’re Working On: Sod BMPs
Betsy McGill, Executive Director, Turfgrass Producers of Florida
It’s been one of the busiest springs I can remember in terms of impactful industry issues, but many times, the work of the association (including the many hours given by volunteers) is humming along behind the scenes. So I wanted to take a moment to update you on some of the issues that your board, fellow grower volunteers, and I are working on for you.
Sod BMP Manual Update
In 2016, enrollment in the Florida Department of Agriculture’s Best Management Practices (BMP) program became mandatory for any farm operating in areas with a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) (you can view current and pending BMAP plans here: https://floridadep.gov/dear/water-quality-restoration/content/basin-management-action-plans-bmaps).
Florida’s BMP program requires that all manuals be updated at least every five years, and the sod manual was overdue when we originally reviewed and submitted an updated version to DEP in 2018. The manual received an initial letter of approval; however, that year’s elections put many projects, including this one, on hold as newly elected officials set up staff and launched initiatives. The 2020 passage of SB 712—The Clean Waterways Act added another layer of complexity to the BMP program by increasing the frequency of implementation verification visits and by requiring “Detailed documentation of fertilizer use by agricultural operations to ensure compliance with Best Management Practices to aid in evaluation of their effectiveness.” The TPF board has participated in several calls with FDACS-Office of Ag Water Policy OAWP Director Chris Pettit and with Bill Bartnick to ensure to the best of our ability that the manual is relevant, clear, accurate and economically realistic. We’ve received the latest draft of the Sod BMP manual, which is also under review by DEP and other regulators and expect it will move forward before long.
BMP Fertilizer Reporting Form
The FDACS-OAWP was tasked with both conducting these more-frequent IV visits (which called for hiring additional field staff and getting them up to speed immediately) and with developing a method and a form to collect the required fertilization data. OAWP sought to create a single annual reporting form to be utilized across commodities; however, it soon became apparent that reporting on a crop of vegetables was vastly differently from a field of sod (or bedding plants or citrus or… well, let’s just say one-size-does-not-fit-all).
Throughout the fall and this spring, I’ve participated on many calls with other ag groups and with FDACS-OAWP to provide input on this form, to explain the unique production cycle of sod, and to seek clarification on how sod farms can provide the required data without it being incredibly burdensome. We are also deeply concerned about the privacy of the data and how it would be used. The form was sent to rulemaking earlier this spring, and we’ll continue to monitor it. We’ve been told that “substantially similar records” such as an Excel spread sheet outlining application timings, rates and locations will be acceptable. Several members have already had IV visits this year, so if you have questions or feedback from your visit, please let us know.
UF Turf Fertilizer Recommendations
Given this laser focus on fertilizer use, it’s no wonder that one of the most concerning issues for all agricultural commodities this year has been UF/IFAS recommended fertilization rates. This is especially true for sod production, as the current rates cited in the manual are based on studies conducted prior to 2008 which were limited to trial plots, rather than being conducted on farms under actual commercial production conditions – including harvest. The TPF board hosted UF/IFAS VP for Ag & Natural Resources Dr. Scott Angle on our October 2020 board meeting, and this is an area that we stressed. We’re pursuing new, on-farm research to provide updated and accurate recommendations and have sought assurance that any updated recommendations will flow seamlessly into the BMP programs. But we’re only one of many commodities needing this research, so we’ll likely have a monumental task ahead to be sure we’re heard and move to the front of the line. We’ll be asking for your help as we push for critical updates to this research.
BMP Assessment Tool
Finally, we’re also working with Del Bottcher (Soil and Water Engineering Technology) to provide technical advice on the development of a BMP Assessment Tool (BMPAT) for sod production. This online, spreadsheet-based tool is intended to help growers determine the effectiveness and economic feasibility of a recommended BMP practice. Bottcher is working under contract with the FDACS-OAWP and completed a similar tool for the Florida Cattlemen’s BMP program. However, with much less data on turf production, the development of a meaningful tool could be challenging. Travis and Amber Council and I met with Del on Travis’s farm in Ruskin recently; Jonathan Brown hosted him at Bethel Farms to help him better understand our industry. Technical Advisory committee members are Paul Grose, King Ranch; Travis Council, Council Growers; Jonathan Brown, Bethel Farms; Shaun O’Brien, DUDA; Dr. Bryan Unruh, UF/IFAS; and me. The project is continuing through the summer.
If you have questions or comments on the BMP program, don’t hesitate to email or call. – Betsy