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Ecosystems of south Florida

Man-dominated ecosystems

Agricultural systems

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Despite the obvious benefit of a year-round growing season, most of south Florida was originally not suited to farming because it was subject to annual flooding. Agricultural activity increased in the 1920's as more and more peat soil in the northern Everglades was drained. Drainage also opened land to farming between the Everglades and the Atlantic Coastal Ridge and in parts of the Western Flatlands. Increasing availability of farm machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides allowed for intensive farming and for farming of marginal lands. On rocky land, for example, machinery was used to break up the original rock surface (Nicholas, 1973).

photograph of field being watered
Farming in south Florida benefits from the year-round growing season. [larger image]
Today, farming is concentrated primarily in the northern Everglades, the Western Flatlands, and the rocky glades west of the Atlantic Coastal Ridge (fig. 18). Sugarcane, vegetables, and citrus are the important crops. Vegetables from the region provide a large part of the Nation's winter supply.

Cattle are an important industry on natural grasslands and on improved pasture. Cattle ranching is most extensive in the Eastern and Western Flatlands and the Devils Garden area.

Farming and ranching benefit from the year-round growing season and environmental resources of the area. Usually, however, both require subsidies such as fossil fuel, heavy machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides to maintain high levels of net production (Lugo and others, 1971). An exception is cattle grazing on natural grasslands that, under light grazing pressure, are self-maintaining.

Much farming in south Florida depends on the rich muck land for the production of sugarcane, snap beans, celery, cabbage, sweet corn, and other crops. However, oxidation is progressively removing this important rich organic soil. An elevated water table precludes oxidation, but it also precludes agriculture as practiced today (Lugo and others, 1971).

As water levels are manipulated for agricultural development, muck is alternately covered by water and exposed to the air. During low-water periods of drying, oxidation of the muck occurs and the probability of fire increases. These processes result in muck loss and the release of nutrients to the irrigation ditches surrounding the area. Pesticides are also washed from the system and may cause biological damage elsewhere (Lugo and others, 1971).

Agricultural systems of south Florida are threatened by environmental and economic factors. Forced abandonment of farms is predicted in the intensively farmed muck land because of soil subsidence. Other farms will be abandoned because of expanding urbanization that increases land taxes or will be sold for urban and residential development as land costs increase (Alexander and Crook, 1973).

satellite image showing Lake Okeechobee and the adjoining agricultural area
FIGURE 18. Lake Okeechobee and the adjoining agricultural area. [larger image]

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