Tag Archives: Red Hills

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Exploring the Small Farms of Florida’s Red Hills Part 2

Over the past couple of months we’ve made a foray into local agriculture, an industry that’s of critical importance to the ecology of our area.   We’re now in the process of setting up some new adventures that get us back on the water- both salt and fresh.  And of course, our EcoShakespeare segments will begin airing January 28 on Dimensions (before streaming here).  We’re always looking for new ways to interact with the outdoors, and we always want to hear your suggestions for how we can accomplish this.  Don’t be shy about leaving comments!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Miccosukee Root Cellar strives to be a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers.  Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

Miccosukee Root Cellar is a farm to table restaurant, buying from several local food growers. Chef Owen Hardin uses Thomasville, GA pecans to make both the ice cream filling and crust of this pie.

“Eating local means eating seasonal,” Katie Harris told me in an unused clip from her interview.  That means that if you want to go full locavore, you’ll soon be saying goodbye to fresh tomatoes and yellow squash and hello to chard and broccoli.  Katie co-manages the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance with Louise Divine, who we interviewed in part one of this video.  Part of their public outreach is to provide recipes and seasonal calendars to consumers who may not be used to limiting themselves to food that grows within a few counties of their house.  The food that will grow in north Florida will vary with our seasons, and so eating locally means adjusting to what’s available.  Eating locally is one of those things that’s easy to get behind.  You’re supporting the local economy.  And you’re supporting the environment, aren’t you?  Let’s take a closer look.

The primary environmental argument often used in favor of eating locally are the “food miles” traveled by the food.  Tomatoes from a Red Hills farm may travel 20-30 miles to get to my house.  Tomatoes grown in Mexico, which you may see at your grocery store of choice, have traveled over 1,000 miles by truck or plane to get here.  A lot of gasoline is used to transport food around the world.  A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council on the emissions of California’s imported foods found that in 2005, 250,000 tons of global warming gasses were produced by incoming food products, as much as 40,000 cars.  And that’s just one state in one country.

But food miles are just one factor in the equation.  A post on the Harvard Extension Blog looked at data for total carbon used in food production and found that, overall, most emissions occur from the production of food rather than their transport to market.  This is especially true of meat products, which alone account for more greenhouse emissions than all cars and trucks on earth.  Cows, sheep, and goats belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and a lot of energy goes into producing the grain they eat.  That’s food miles and the fertilizer it takes to grow the grain.  Which gets us to how produce is grown.

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Aaron Suko, co-manager at Full Earth Farm, lays ribbon hose along an unused row. Drip irrigation uses water more efficiently than center pivot irrigation, a technique used on many large farms.

In a 2008 article in the Guardian on the “Myth of Food Miles,” green beans grown in Nigeria are presented as a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local product.  A professor they interview touts Nigerian growing methods, which don’t use tractors (all manual labor, no gas) or cow manure, and use low-impact irrigation.  The Harvard Extension blog post referenced a study that showed lamb grown in New Zealand is a greener choice for UK shoppers than their own local lamb, because New Zealand lambs are pastured (eating the grass that grows on the ground) and live on farms that use hydroelectric power (This blog post from Oregon Public Broadcasting, while ultimately agreeing that grass is a greener feed for cattle, does a good job of outlining the controversy over which feed is more environmentally friendly).

While sustainable practices are not a prerequisite for membership in the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, The farms we’ve highlighted do practice organic techniques (the lone meat producer we featured in part 1 of this video, Golden Acres Ranch, isn’t organic but aims to be “all natural”).  In our Sharing Water Conference segment, we see how Katie (Full Earth Farm, Quincy) and Herman Holley (Turkey Hill Farm, Tallahassee) prepare compost intended to provide fertilization to their plants without contributing nitrate runoff to local waterways.  They both use tractors for certain tasks but, as you see in the video above, do a lot of work manually as well.  As Katie’s co-manager at Full Earth, Aaron Suko, says in the video, they can be efficient by planting at the right times, hoeing weeds when they’re small, and being organized.  “You just got to work smarter, and not harder.”  This, they tell me, is the key to small, sustainable farming.

There are advances and techniques that both conventional and organic farmers are exploring to increase efficiency and help preserve natural resources.  Here are a few that we’ve covered on WFSU-TV:

  • My fellow WFSU producer Mike Plummer recently visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Marianna.  There, he learned about their research into reducing methane emissions from cows.  In another segment, he looks at their research into better selective breeding of cattle.
  • Mike also visited the IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, where they are working on a sod based rotation system that aims to improve irrigation by alternating plots of bahia grass with crops.  They claim that if the techniques were to be adopted, they could reduce water usage of farms along the Flint River to a degree that would greatly increase freshwater flows downstream on the Apalachicola.
  • P1070982-smallerThe IFAS Research Center in Quincy is also looking at satsuma oranges as a potential crop for north Florida.  They are cold hardier, meaning they would perform better here than other varieties grown in the state.  In fact, some Red Hills farms are already growing this Japanese variety.
  • Red Hills farms are experimenting with rotating different crops that would help build soil.  Wayne Hawthorne at Blue Ridge Farm has planted sodbuster radish in his outdoor beds.  This New Zealand import has roots that are supposed to break up hard soils (like the red clay that is prevalent in our area), add a natural fungicide to the soil, and then tap into minerals deep in the soils without tilling.  He sent some of his seeds to a friend working at an IFAS extension in Ruskin, Florida, where they’ll perform their own experiments.
  • Both Turkey Hill and Full Earth experiment with cover crops.  Full Earth’s Aaron explained to us the benefits.  Cover crops are planted in plots not currently in production.  Their roots keep the soil from eroding.  Sometimes they plant sunflowers, which attract pollinators.  They also plant legumes, which naturally add nitrogen to soil (lessening the need for added fertility).
  • Also in the aforementioned Sharing Water Conference video, we visited Simpson’s Nursery, which uses Monticello’s reclaimed water and recycles water on site to reduce aquifer withdrawals.  This is by no means a small local farm (every Red Hills Farm together might fit in its 1400 acres), and its water usage is considerable.
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Video: Water Sport and the Value of Land in the Red Hills

The name Red Hills is perhaps underused by those of us who actually live here. That’s why the folks at Tall Timbers set out to reintroduce us to the area between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla Rivers, from Thomasville to Tallahassee to Monticello. In defining this eco-region and the benefits we receive from living here, I gained a new perspective on our longer running exploration of the Forgotten Coast and its own gifts and uniqueness. I’ve often written about miles of unspoiled coastline and how that benefits our seafood industry. But any large healthy tree has an equally large root system that we don’t see, and for our estuaries these are miles of unspoiled river banks, sloughs, springs, and lakes. In our last EcoAdventure we hiked along sloughs in the backlands of the Apalachicola River floodplain, little fingers reaching into the nutrient rich muck to send it on its way to the bay. In the video above, we visit the lakes of north Leon County, through which water enters the Floridan Aquifer. This is our water, the water I’m drinking as I write this. It’s the water that feeds our springs, such as those that in turn feed the Wacissa River. That water emerges from Wakulla Springs, which flows into the Wakulla River and down to Apalachee Bay.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

Michael Hill took me for a spin on Lake Iamonia.

This adventure was about more than just the lakes, which were great to kayak and SUP. These lakes are protected by forested land that filters storm water runoff and buffers them from pollution. That’s an ecosystem service the land provides. That’s a value that we receive, as consumers of the water. We also receive the benefit of having the land to visit as parkland or, for the hunters who own private forested lands north of Tallahassee, to hunt animals sheltered in the habitat.

There is often this tension between ecology and economy, a perception that land has more value if it can be sold as real estate or built upon with stores and offices. That’s why there has been a push in recent years to put a dollar amount on ecosystem services. In our collaboration with Randall Hughes and David Kimbro, we’ve cited a study that determined the value of a salt marsh. Tall Timbers has been promoting a similar study conducted at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry an Natural Resources on the services provided by the Red Hills. For a detailed look at how Dr. Rebecca Moore determined the value of services, click here.

The total value of Red Hills ecosystem services determined by the study are $1.136 billion per year.  We focus on groundwater recharge ($229 million) and water supply protection ($615 million) in the video. Another service is pollination, at a value of $60 million. That means that the forested land around town supports pollinating species like bees and butterflies to the advantage of both farmers and us amateur gardeners. Aesthetic value is listed as $163 million.

The one thing that has surprised me the most since I started talking to Tall Timbers about this piece is that much of the forested land providing these services is privately owned. Tall Timbers estimates that there are 445,000 acres of forested land in the greater Red Hills Region. Over 300,000 acres are privately held on largely contiguous quail hunting properties. Many of these properties were purchased in the 1800s and early 1900s, sparing them from logging and preserving old growth coastal plain forest. These forests, and the bobwhite quail that live there, are what drew people here.

The Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy

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Henry L. Beadle on Lake Iamonia, 1924. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

One of the people drawn to the Red Hills was Henry L. Beadle. His hunting plantation on Lake Iamonia is where, in 1958, Tall Timbers was established. It was his desire to have a place to conduct research on fire ecology and its effect on “quail, turkey and other wildlife, as well as on vegetation of value as cover and food for wildlife.” While hunters in the area had made use of fire to manage the longleaf/ wiregrass ecosystems on their property, it wasn’t until fairly recently that it became a mainstream practice (get two land managers together and see if they don’t start trading fire stories). Tall Timbers mission is to “foster exemplary land stewardship” while also “respecting the rights and recognizing the responsibilities of private property ownership.” They are advocates of “smart growth,” development with a broader view of economic feasibility. That means factoring in the value of ecosystem services when planning new development.

Lake Iamonia

It seemed like the appropriate place to begin the adventure. It’s Leon County’s largest natural lake, and it has an interesting hydrology. Michael Hill from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission met us on the lake to talk about the work he and FWC have done to restore the lake. I met Michael for the first time last fall on Lake Lafayette. Like Lakes Iamonia, Jackson, and Miccosukee, Lake Lafayette has a sinkhole that connects to the Floridan Aquifer. All of these lakes had natural dry down cycles, where the lake would cyclically empty and refill. In the early twentieth century, people viewed this draining as an ecological catastrophe.  They set out to “save the lakes.” They built earthen dams to isolate the sinkholes from their lakes. This kept the lakes full, but disrupted much of their ecology. On Lake Lafayette, Michael showed us the effects of a lake not being able to go through its normal drought/ rain cycles. Muck builds up on the bottoms of these lakes, and floating islands of vegetation called tussocks form. This alters the habitat for fish and other species. And removing tussocks is an expensive process involving herbicides and heavy machinery.

Water overflows from the Ochlockonee River on February 27, 2013.

Water flows under the twin bridges on Meridian Road, from the Ochlockonee River into Lake Iamonia.  February 27, 2013.  Photo by Michael Hill, FWC.

Lake Iamonia’s dam failed, however, and the gates were removed. This allowed the lake to dry down again, and for FWC to come in and scrape the muck off of the bottom. “We’d seen that there were two to four feet of Muck,” Michael told a gathered group of Tall Timbers employees. “Muck is aquatic plants. It’s at advanced stages of decomposition.” When the lake dries down naturally, the sun dries the bottom. When it doesn’t, muck accumulates. Seeds start growing in it, and it starts to float on the surface of the water as islands. The fish that spawn on the lake bottom prefer a sandier surface, so muck inhibits them. During Iamonia’s last dry down, FWC removed 23 acres of muck. Last year, they removed 25 more. But just as the lake was full for 40 years, Michael thinks it might take another 40 or 50 more for the muck to completely disappear.

The other interesting feature of the lake is its relationship with the Ochlockonee River. While the river does not flow directly into Lake Iamonia, it does feed the lake by overflowing into it. Michael shared some photos of this flooding, which mainly passes under Meridian Road at the twin bridges that run alongside the lake. Iamonia dries down every seven years, and it is filled by rain and by the flooding Ochlockonee.

Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park

Forested wetlands in Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park.

After we left Michael, we went not to Leon County’s other major lake, but to land adjacent to it. It was a cooperative purchase between the City of Tallahassee and the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NFWMD). “Their interest was the activity centers; the ball fields and the soccer complex,” Said NFWMD’s Tyler Macmillan. “Our interest was a passive recreation area that protected Lake Jackson.” Hiking through when we did, during the rainy season, we saw a variety of water features at Klapp-Phipps Park. The were small creeks and swamps as well as places where stormwater runoff ran alongside or directly on the path. One number I found interesting in the Ecosystem services report was the value of urban/ suburban forested wetlands. Rural forested wetlands are valued around $4,600 an acre annually; those in urban/ suburban areas are valued at $8,200. The reason for the disparity is that urban wetlands are less common and, in a sense, work harder to abate pollution and filter runoff.

For Tallahasseeans who like to hit park trails, these are great. There are miles of trails in this network; it’s not hard to get lost. After years of walking greenways and trails in Tallahassee parks (we have quite a few), I’m surprised it took me so long to find this one.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze.

After lugging me around Lake Iamonia in a tandem kayak, taking my son Max out on a paddleboard must have been a breeze for Georgia.

When I think of this park, I think of flowers. And pollen. Years ago when I produced WFSU’s music show, outloud, we brought local zheng player Haiqiong Deng to the gardens to record a few pieces. Spring had just sprung, and after every piece we stopped to wipe a layer of yellow dust off of her instrument and our gear. The combination of music and setting made it one of my favorite episodes of the show, which ran for almost ten years.

The park has much more than these gardens, with miles of trails and Lake Hall, which I managed to not fall into while learning to stand up paddleboard (I do come close, as you can see). It’s a place where you can take your kayak, canoe, SUP, or sailboat and not worry about motorboats. Lake Hall is considered to have some of the best water quality in Leon County. Park manager Elizabeth Weidner told us that in recent years they have installed collection ponds adjacent to the roadways around the park to collect stormwater runoff.

I had a great time exploring these places, and gaining a larger perspective on how water moves through a watershed and beneath us in the aquifer.  We’ll be further expanding upon this theme while we continue to look for great places to spend a day (or more).  I don’t like to jinx myself by saying what we’ll be shooting in the coming weeks, as the weather can be uncooperative (we got the video above on our third try).  Let’s just say we’ve planned a hike in a place with a reputation for being difficult and are heading back to the Apalachicola basin for a seasonal treat.

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