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Florida Farmers Gearing Up To Fight Climate Change

The Williamson Ranch, shown here in 2016, is a third-generation family ranch in Okeechobee.
Carl Juste/Miami Herald
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Randall Dasher is a fourth-generation Florida farmer and until last year, he never had a crop of iron-clay cowpeas fail.

"Something has changed and somewhere, someway, that has affected our yields," he said Monday during a panel at the University of Florida, where farmers met with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, scientists and agriculture officials.

In Florida, where 26 million acres are in agriculture production, farmers have long faced threats from trade agreements, pests and development. Now they've added a new risk to the $140 billion industry: climate change."We had the prettiest field of peas you ever seen," Dasher said, "but they never set a crop." 

The meeting was part of a new project launched by UF to study the risk from a warming planet to Florida farms, ranches and timberland. It occurred less than a week after the United Nations issued its latest climate assessment warning of a looming food crisis as increased rainfall and drought make farming harder.

The reportalso offered a dim view of farming practices, concluding that some agricultural operations are making impacts from climate change even worse.

Scientists found the global food chain, including production and shipping, contributes to about 30 percent of emissions. The assessment also blamed farming for land clearing that has eliminated forests that help absorb carbon. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture is questioning some of the numbers, Bill Hohenstein, director of the agency's Office Energy and Environmental Policy, said during the meeting. He said the tallies failed to include clearing for development. 

"That's not just a result of food production," he said.

Sandy Stein owns a 30-acre nursery in the Redland. He said he's had to switch some plants to deal with increasing temperatures and heavier rain.

"In South Florida, there is no such thing as winter anymore," he said. "It just does not exist."

The Redland in Miami-Dade County is a hub for the state's nursery industry.
Credit Emily Michot Miami Herald
The Florida Channel
The Redland in Miami-Dade County is a hub for the state's nursery industry.

Dasher began focusing the family farm on bahiagrass, rye and cowpeas in the 1970s. But as the grass and rye production faltered, he switched to greenhouse herbs.

"The years since 2012 have gotten wetter," he said. "The inches have definitely picked up and it's starting to have some effect on what we grow."

UF launched a working group in April to begin meeting with farmers and try to assess how much rising temperatures, increased rain and other impacts could damage Florida's ag industry. They also want to come up with ways to improve farming practices and make the industry more resilient.

On Monday, Castor toured an area farm. Castor, a Democrat, serves on a climate committee created in the House after her party regained control this year and said the committee has already looked at the energy and transportation sector.

While the UN report was dire, she said farmers can find answers.

"They want to be part of tackling solutions," Castor said. "They understand Florida is in the crosshairs."

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.