Although Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) has awarded its annual Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award since 1994, this year's three winners are perhaps the most exemplary ever.
The 2013 recipients, who will be formally honored by Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam at a breakfast ceremony Oct. 25 during Florida Farm Bureau's annual convention in Ponte Vedra, are Barbara Goering of The Farmton Tree Farm in Volusia County, Dudley Calfee of Ferris Farms, Inc. in Floral City, and Shane Platt of Kissimmee Park Properties in St. Cloud.
The work they have done sends a clear message to the public about the environmental responsibility and engagement of Florida's farmers and ranchers.
"We've had a lot of good winners over the years," said Andy Rackley, director of agricultural environmental services at FDACS. "But these three are as good as we've seen since I've been with the department for the last eight years. And what they've demonstrated is that you really can make some major moves to double down on your commitment to the environment and production agriculture and be successful doing it."
In a broader public sense, Rackley said, the awards - created to spotlight innovative environmental practices by Florida farmers and ranchers - reinforce awareness that agbusiness operators are in the best position as major landowners to do something that they have control over that will improve the environment. "And that's true not only because they own the land," Rackley said, "but also because they have the resources to do something positive."
FDACS's ag-environmental awards, given in cooperation with an independent committee that includes representatives of Florida Department of Environmental Protection, water management districts and environmental groups, are designed to recognize self-motivated efforts to improve water and air quality, or restore lands as wildlife habitats. "And all of those kinds of individual activities benefit the Florida environment," Rackley said.
In today's world, where farmers and ranchers are often at odds with environmental activists, it's important to understand that "farmers and ranchers are the original environmentalists, because their livelihoods are based on protecting the integrity and productivity of their land," Rackley said. "Quite frankly, I don't know a farmer or rancher who doesn't do everything in their power to try to make sure that they leave a very small footprint and protect the environment, because their business depends on that."
Platt, the fifth-generation representative of his family to run Kissimmee Park Properties, which operates a 1,200-acre, 250-head cow-calf enterprise and 60-acres of citrus production, said he was honored to have been recognized for his family's long history of good environmental stewardship.
"It's really special," said Platt, who was also named the 2013 winner of the National Cattleman's Beef Association southeast regional Environmental Stewardship Award earlier this month. "We've been practicing environmental responsibility for generations. But to now get recognized for it is just very special."
Platt stressed, however, that environmental awareness and responsibility are nothing new for him or his family's 135-year-old business.
"Our goal has always been to protect the ranch's economic aspect and also the sustainable wildlife habitat that we work in," Platt said.
For example, he noted, although the protection and promotion of wildlife corridors are now hot topics of discussion, his family has been practicing those things for 70 years.
More recently, Platt has focused on rotational grazing and water resource management. "Rotational grazing improves the quality of your pastures when your cattle can roam," he said. "And to do that, you have to have a water source. We've got lots of lake frontage. But that doesn't mean it's in the right locations. So as a result, we accomplished rotational grazing by putting in over five miles of new fencing."
And because he didn't want to dig water holes, he installed almost two miles of pipe and six individual 1,150-gallen water troughs in each of the new fields.
Platt is also a big supporter of the move toward so-called prescribed burns, as opposed to uncontrolled burns, as a modern best practice.
Those three practices are good examples of smart business practices that are also good environmental practices, said Platt, adding that the underlying importance of the issue is obvious.
"It's our obligation to protect the land," he said, "because that's the source of our economic well-being as a business. And that is a message that has always been repeated to me."
Goering earned recognition for her 59,000-acre timber operation because of her leadership in creating the Farmton Local Plan, an innovative 50-year initiative to place nearly 80 per cent of the land into conservation.
Calfee won the award for his work in developing large-scale commercial flats for strawberry production. For the past six years, he has harvested the first commercial flats of strawberries in Florida and also produced blueberries while dramatically reducing the use of pesticides, plastic mulch and plastic drip tube and fungicide application.