Photo: Thomas Bender/Herald-Tribune
Southwest Florida Roundup
Fried potatoes: Chipping away at potato farmer's future
Rural Florida series
Potatoes might not be in the future for one award-winning potato farm.
Shortly after Alan Jones and his family established a potato farm in northern Manatee County in the late 1980s, Jones started hearing that fertilizer runoff from farms near the coast might be contributing to red tide, the fish-killing, toxic algae blooms that plague the Gulf of Mexico.
“It didn’t make me feel too good that we were getting blamed for red tide, and I didn’t even know what red tide was,” he says.
The perception, true or not, motivated Jones to figure out how to lessen his farm’s environmental impact.
At the time, most potato farms used seepage irrigation, which utilized a series of waterfilled trenches that raised the water table, soaked the soil and irrigated the plants from below. Jones tried something different. He used PVC pipe to deliver a smaller amount of water from below, as well as a centerpivot irrigation system that watered the plants from above. He also installed sensors so the fields’ water pumps would only turn on when necessary.
“The first year, we cut our water use 70%,” he says.
Jones Potato Farm also cut its fertilizer use — by an estimated 30% — using detailed maps of the farm’s soil composition. Fertilizer and other nutrients are only applied when and where they are needed, and in the correct quantity.
As a result, Jones and the farm, which employs 20 people year-round and more than 100 seasonally, has won a variety of sustainability and other awards over the years, including a 2016 agriculture environmental leadership award from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The farm, though, has an uncertain future. Much of its acreage is located off U.S. 301 north of Parrish, in a fastchanging area where the zoning allows non-agricultural uses. Jones, 49, doesn’t want to see his land become “strip malls and cul-de-sacs,” but he’s realistic that some sort of development — perhaps a town center — is likely.
“Just because it has been farmland for the last 50 years doesn’t mean it’s going to be farmland for the next 50 years,” he says.
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