Roosevelt Dicks has been farming tobacco in Columbia County since 1937. He has seen many changes in those years but one thing has remained constant. Tobacco needs rainfall. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has helped Mr. Dicks install a center pivot irrigation system that helps when Mother Nature does not cooperate. Like this summer for instance.
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service's 2002 Census of Agriculture there were 155 tobacco farms in Florida. Nationally there are 3,851 with Kentucky having the most farms and North Carolina having the most pounds harvested. North Carolina harvests 353,126,841 pounds annually. Tobacco accounts for only 2.7% of total agriculture nationwide.
Roosevelt says, "Back in the day there were 1,100 tobacco farmers here in Columbia County. Now there are three. We sell all the tobacco that we harvest and if we had a contract we would grow a lot more". Years ago tobacco was on an allotment system by the federal government. A farmer could only grow so much, based on the amount of people who lived on the farm. Now a farmer can grow as much as they want. Based on the number of tobacco farmers in Columbia County people aren't scrambling to get into the tobacco business.
Roosevelt farms with his son Travis on their 540 acre farm near Lake City. They grow Bermuda grass, Bahia, peanuts and tobacco. Tobacco is the most profitable. "We can make $1,200 an acre with tobacco as compared to $300 per acre with peanuts. But tobacco takes a lot more work to grow. With peanuts you plant them and that's about it. Tobacco needs spraying and more trips up and down the field, which means more fuel", Travis says. They also sell grass seed to customers in South Florida, Mississippi and the Carolinas. The Dicks also raise cattle with a herd of 120 momma cows and 100 yearlings. The 62 acres of corn that they grow goes to the cattle and not to market.
Cost effective conservation
The 27 acres of tobacco that they raise was irrigated by a traveling gun system with movable pipes. This system used tremendous pressure to irrigate their fields and used a tremendous amount of energy to operate. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provided cost share funds to upgrade them to a center pivot system. The new system not only saved Roosevelt and Travis money in fuel costs and time/labor, but water as well. A traveling gun system is 65% efficient in its water use, while a center pivot operates at 80-85% efficiency. With the price of fuel and Florida's scrutiny on water quantity this is a win-win either way you look at it. Travis says the fuel truck doesn't have to come nearly as often. "We save 60 to 70 percent on fuel using the center pivot system. Over a years time we saved over $11,000 in fuel savings alone", Travis says.
Al Oliver, NRCS District Conservationist in the Columbia County USDA Service Center worked with the Dicks to make sure this system was right for their operation. "The center pivot system just makes sense in these times of high fuel prices and a decreasing water table. The entire system cost $55,000 and NRCS cost shared $24,000 of that total. The difference was the pump, which is not eligible for cost share funds", Oliver says.
The irrigation system is not the only conservation practice the Dicks have taken advantage of from the NRCS. In 2000 a water trough was needed on the Dicks farm to improve pasture management and it was installed through cost share funds provided by NRCS. A 4 inch well and pipeline were installed. One of the main reasons for installing the trough is the water flow has been changed drastically by the development boom in Columbia County. Instead of percolating into the soil the water is running off due to the increased amount of concrete used for development. The recent hurricane seasons and the associated rainfall presented major problems for the Dicks farming operation. "We had water running on our farm in places that we never seen happen before because everybody is changing the water flow. And the water got deeper than it's ever been. They are hauling in dirt, digging ditches, more concrete, more asphalt. And it has changed the water flow. And it is changing it bad. I mean it is a bad problem. It really affects my farm. Nobody wants to contain their own water. They just want to drain it off. Put it on somebody else. And it seems like we are the catch-all here on the farm." The water trough makes the water source for the cows more reliable.
Farm bill program history
In the past contracts for cost share funds through NRCS were very competitive. Nationwide only one in five applicants was accepted into the various Farm Bill Programs such as EQIP, which helped pay for the Dicks' irrigation system. There were far more applicants than funds to go around. For the fist time in recent memory this year was just the opposite. Sign ups for Farm Bill Programs are continuous, however applications are'batched' and ranked once a year. In 2006 the Florida NRCS was forced to have an additional sign up because there were too few applicants for the amount of money allotted to the state.
Four to go
The NRCS is beginning a campaign to inform producers of the steps involved in becoming eligible for cost share benefits through programs such as EQIP. The campaign is called 'Four To Go' and is based on a four-step process. The first is identifying the resource concern.
Resource concerns identified by NRCS are
1) Water Quality,
2) Water Quantity,
3) Soil Erosion and
4) Plant and Animal Health.
In the Dicks' case it was a water quantity concern.
The second step is to come into the USDA Service Center and apply for the program. The USDA Service Center includes the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency and Rural Development. The USDA Service Center in Lake City is located at 2304 SW Main Blvd. The telephone # is (386) 755-3194. The Lake City Field Offices serves producers in Columbia and Union counties.
The third step is to have a Conservation Plan written by Al Oliver the District Conservationist for NRCS. A Conservation Plan is mandatory for those receiving federal cost share conservation funds through NRCS.
The fourth and most important step is the installation of the practice itself.
"I would recommend that producers go in to NRCS and check out their Farm Bill Programs. It saved us $24,000. It was a big help" says Travis Dicks.
The Dicks don't have any plans to get out of farming. As they describe it they are in it for the long haul. And, farming for 59 years you could say that Roosevelt has done his share of hauling already. When I asked to put farming into one word they both said Dedication. "It's a 24 hour job," says Travis.