It also helps protect your operation from some additional regulations.
Participating growers "receive a presumption of compliance" with the state's water quality requirements, says Bill Bartnick, environmental administrator at the Florida Department of Agriculture in Tallahassee. Those growers don't need to monitor water quality and nutrient discharge limits.
In addition, growers inside a basin management action plan but not enrolled in the BMP program may have to pay for water quality monitoring to demonstrate compliance and take any required remedial action.
Most growers already use at least some of the science-based practices outlined in the guidelines.
"Why not get credit for it?" says Kerry Kates, director of water and natural resources for Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association in Maitland.
Louise King, vice president of the Tropical Fruit Growers of South Florida Inc., signed up her operation, Royal Grove Nursery in Homestead, for the guidelines as soon as they were adopted.
"I wanted to be in compliance and not be blamed for something I didn't do," King says.
"It's an insurance policy," says Jerry Mixon, director of domestic production for Dole Berry Co. "And it's a free or low-cost policy because they're things we were already doing."
Dole acquired the Haines City-based Mixon Family Farm last year.
So far, 19 specialty fruit and nut producers have enrolled in the program, covering just over 3,500 acres. More than 7 million acres altogether fall under all of the state's BMP guidelines, covering crops from citrus to vegetables as well as cattle, container nursery and sod operations.
The specialty fruit and nuts manual is among the latest in a decade-long series that started with Florida's largest agricultural land uses, Bartnick says. Growers collaborate with state regulators and University of Florida researchers to develop each version, which is slated for review and revision every five years.
New bird-hazing section
The manual outlines six main categories of best practices, including nutrient, irrigation and stormwater management.
Integrated pest management also is included, focusing not only on pesticide applications but also on bird-hazing devices such as propane cannons.
That section was added to offer protection against city or county efforts to adopt noise ordinances that might otherwise prohibit using sound devices, Bartnick says.
It's a particular concern for the state's burgeoning blueberry industry, Mixon says.
"We have a lot of small growers," he says. The IPM provision "gave them a way to say to their neighbors 'I'm sorry you're angry [about the noise], but I'm following the BMPs and I'm in compliance.'"
But the overall focus on water quality also appeals to growers. "All of us want good quality water," Mixon says. "This shows everyone you're trying to be a good neighbor."
"We have so much water here and we want to keep our rivers, lakes, streams and springs clean and healthy," Kates says. "This is a way for agriculture to do our part."
Mixon farms in two locations with different challenges for nutrient and irrigation management, one sited near a wetland, the other on higher ground. But he hasn't found the guidelines restrictive.
"Most, if not all of the practices, make good farming sense," he says. He changed very little in his operation to comply.
Getting in the record-keeping habit
Documenting their existing efforts is likely the biggest change most growers will face, King says.
But, she and Mixon point out, growers already are in the record-keeping habit to meet food safety requirements.
"We're trying to making it as unintrusive as possible," says Brian Boman, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Florida's Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce.
The required records also help growers track decisions and results, such as the timing and amount of irrigation or fertilizer.
"It should make them better farmers," Boman says.
"Why would you want to put more fertilizer on than you need to and see it get washed away?" King says.
The guidelines strive for flexibility to account for differences among individual operations.
"What might be a challenge for someone in Levy County is different for someone in Miami-Dade," Boman says.
The overall goal is to encourage adoption of alternative methods that "might be more economical or no more costly and at the same time better for the environment," he says.
Boman runs implementation teams that offer growers one-on-one assessments and advice on the guidelines.
Growers also can turn to the state's mobile irrigation labs for a free diagnostic tune-up, Bartnick says.
Recent editions of the guidelines, including the set for specialty fruit and nuts, show a greater emphasis on water management and conservation, Kates says.
Water conservation will be a perpetual concern from here on out.
"That's never going to go away," he says.
These practices often lead to reductions in water and fertilizer use, as well as less runoff from the farm, Kates says.
Some are simple: building grassed swales to control erosion or holding as much runoff as possible on the farm during stormwater events.
Many growers are updating irrigation systems for added efficiency or using reclaimed water where feasible. Tailwater recovery systems—collecting applied irrigation water for later reuse in on-site ponds, where nutrients settle out—are one option that saves water and reduces runoff, Kates says.
It's becoming a popular option for strawberry and blueberry growers, who can also tap the collected water for freeze protection when needed, he says.
Despite state and federal budget cuts, cost-share funds still are available to help growers add tailwater recovery systems or implement other new practices under the guidelines, Kates says.