Environmental stewardship is far more than an Earth Day initiative for many Florida farmers and ranchers – rather, it’s a lifelong responsibility and passion, and it’s often considered the No. 1 way to ensure the land is fit for the next generation.
Established in 2001, Florida Farm Bureau’s CARES (County Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship) program began as an initiative with the Suwannee River Partnership. By 2009, its reach expanded to cover the Santa Fe, Indian River, Okeechobee and Tampa Bay regions.
Today, the CARES program is statewide and honors those producers who go above and beyond in protecting the state’s natural resources by implementing the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Best Management Practices (BMPs) in nutrient management, irrigation management and water resource protection.
To date, the CARES program has recognized more than 800 Florida farmers and ranchers, decking out their properties with “This Farm CARES” signs and promoting their operations.
“Florida Farm Bureau’s CARES program, supported in partnership by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, celebrates the producers who are doing right by the environment,” says CARES Coordinator Cacee Hilliard. “Many of our state’s farms have been in families for several generations, and the CARES program is a way we can pay homage to those who have come before, set the example and laid the groundwork for environmental stewardship across Florida.”
Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery
Located in Lake Panasoffkee and owned by husband-and-wife team Nate and Anna Jameson, Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery, LLC, received CARES recognition in 2019 after several years of implementing BMPs.
Nate and Anna launched Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery in 1998, and in 2006, they relocated the business to Sumter County. The land on which Brite Leaf Citrus Nursery now sits – home to commercial, retail and wholesale citrus trees in approximately 90,000 square feet of fully enclosed, insect-proof greenhouses – has been in Anna’s family for at least 100 years and it borders a Wildlife Management Area.
As a result, it’s easy to see why the couple takes environmental stewardship seriously and have taken eco-friendly measures such as reducing water use from 24,000 gallons a day to less than 10,000 gallons a day by transitioning from overhead to drip irrigation.
The Jamesons also fertigate, or irrigate and fertilize simultaneously, in order to reduce fertilizer waste. They use a sustainable, fibrous byproduct of the coconut oil industry called coconut coir to grow their plants. Plus, outside of their greenhouses, the Jamesons have planted pine trees to serve as windbreaks and provide natural wildlife habitats.
“Nate and I want this land to be here long after we are gone,” says Anna, a seventh-generation Floridian who also serves as vice president of the Sumter County Farm Bureau. “You can’t always take without giving back and expect the land to stay healthy and fertile, so for us, it’s very important that we produce our crops in the most sustainable ways possible.”
Another family-owned operation that became part of the CARES program in 2019 is Schirard Family, LLC, in St. Lucie County, which is operated by Brantley Schirard Sr., and his son, Brantley Schirard Jr.
Together, the father-and-son duo grows citrus and raises beef cattle. Since the operation began in 1990, they’ve implemented BMPs that focus heavily on water-quality protection.
For example, the Schirards have developed an extensive canal system that distributes water from their citrus groves into several different water-retention areas that hold and clean the water before being systematically released from the property. According to Schirard Jr., this system controls the discharge rate so it does not impede the larger drainage footprint of the South Florida Water Management District – plus, it ensures the water leaving their grove is clean.
The Schirards also apply water to their plants at the root through microjet irrigation, resulting in water savings up to 30% annually, and they use a variable rate nutrient application system to prevent waste. Finally, in an effort to protect soil health, the Schirards sample their soil and plant tissues regularly to review their nutritional content and ensure the operation’s nutrient management program is accurate.
“My father and I believe that taking care of the environment and keeping our land healthy is the right thing to do,” says Schirard Jr., who also serves on the St. Lucie County Farm Bureau Board of Directors. “We are privileged to be stewards of the land, and we don’t take that for granted. Plus, I may be biased, but I think our property is absolutely beautiful; I’d hate to be the one who spoiled it for the next generation.”