West Volusia’s landscape is dotted with small farms and ranches owned by a wide range of folks, including young professionals, retirees and full-time farmers.
They encounter a daunting array of challenges, but the Environmental Quality Incentives Program can help. The program is offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
EQIP funds and technical assistance are designed to help conserve groundwater and surface water, reduce soil erosion, and improve habitat.
“Farmers and ranchers want to make improvements to their land, crops and animals,” USDA district conservationist George Johnson said. “The EQIP program helps them achieve their goals and improve the efficiency of their operation.”
We profiled three farms where EQIP has helped.
Sheep need lots of water
Neville and Sally Mangra used help from EQIP to get water to the sheep they raise on 25 acres west of Barberville.
The couple moved to Florida from Illinois, where they bred standard racehorses. They bought their Volusia County acreage because it was close to the Spring Garden Ranch horse-training center.
But by 2012, the standard horse sector was declining economically. Still intent on ranching, after extensive research, the Mangras decided to invest in about 25 ewes and rams of a meat-sheep breed that would do well in Florida.
“We have registered Katahdin sheep which were developed in Maine for their meat, and that we bought from a premier breeder in Lake City,” Neville Mangra said. “The Katahdin breed are not wool producers, so there’s no shearing. They are a tough, hardy sheep that have no horns and will eat almost any plant, like goats.”
The Katahdin don’t eat quite as much as goats, he said, adding, “We still have to mow.”
Breeds that are raised for meat production tend to grow fast and produce a lot of muscle, making them ideal for small farms with limited resources, like the Mangras’ 4 & Change Farm.
Neville Mangra discovered that an immediate need was to get water to his sheep. He used EQIP assistance to put down lines into each pasture. Now, wherever the sheep are pastured, they have ready access to water.
“Sheep require a lot of water. An adult sheep will drink between 3 and 6 gallons of water a day,” Mangra said. “Now each of the five pastures have water troughs, so we can move the sheep around.”
The Mangras are members of the Meat Sheep Alliance of Florida; Sally Mangra has just started a term as the organization’s president.
“MSA was founded in 1990 as a network for sheep producers. We share information on what works, and what doesn’t work,” Sally Mangra said. “Our goal has been education from the start, and we continue that today in our work with 4-H and FFA, and new sheep producers, young and old.”
EQIP helps farm reach goal of no watering
Another example of an EQIP project is on the 7.5-acre farm run by Alyson Grubb in a rural area outside of Orange City.
Grubb has farmed the acreage for eight years. She is dedicated to permaculture farming on 5 acres; the rest of the land is allowed to lie fallow.
Permaculture is the science and art of designing a permanent and sustainable agriculture, an approach championed by Bill Mollison, an Australian who, in the late 20th century, became concerned about agricultural practices that were damaging soil and wasting water.
Mollison traveled the world educating would-be farmers about the value of permaculture. His writings inspired Grubb.
“A permaculture farm is small; it’s diverse. We raise animals, and grow fruit, herbs and root vegetables — and it’s organic,” Grubb said.
She takes the permaculture approach seriously. Her goal is to develop a model permaculture farm and offer workshops and educational programs to teach others this approach.
“Anyone who has land can do permaculture, and be a part of the solution,” Grubb said.
Her operation features a solar array, pastures with cross-fencing and water troughs, and fields filled with fruit trees, medicinal plants, honeybees, worms, chickens and two zebus.
“Zebus are the oldest continuous line of miniature cattle occurring in the world, and they do well in Florida,” Grubb said.
Grubb’s main focus for the past eight years has been building the farm’s soil, which needed lots of remediation.
“I’ve used truckloads of manure and mulch, and lots of composting using lots of worms,” Grubb said, as she showed off a neat container that holds her worm farm.
Grubb credits George Johnson with developing a solution to the need to collect rainwater efficiently, creating the basis for her EQIP grant.
Using Johnson’s approach, Grubb installed a wet drain system that works passively through water pressure and gravity. Pipes are placed as high as possible so the water flows into a storage tank that holds up to 2,500 gallons.
“The approach Johnson suggested is moving my operation toward the goal of no watering,” Grubb said.
Carving out a ranch
Matt Boni is gradually carving out a ranch from a decades-old abandoned orange grove. His 200-acre piece of land near Mims is one of Florida’s 18,433 beef cattle ranches that make the state 12th in the nation in number of beef cattle, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Boni grew up on a bit of land where his dad raised a few cattle. About four years ago, he acquired the acreage in Mims to develop a cattle ranch of his own, making him part of a nationwide trend of a younger generation turning to part-time ranching.
Realizing he needed expertise to manage his property and herd, Boni joined the Volusia County Cattlemen’s Association.
“I wanted to surround myself with a group that knew more than I did,” said Boni, who is now the association’s secretary.
Boni also works a traditional day job, as head of a heating and cooling business. Because of his tight schedule, he focuses on making his ranch more efficient.
“EQIP was crucial for improving my operation,” Boni said.
After meeting with George Johnson and reviewing Boni’s goal to grow better mulch grass, the cross-fence seemed like the quickest and least-costly solution.
A cross fence is used inside an existing peripheral fence to create separate pastures.
Cross-fencing solves several problems: It separates animals, provides rotating pasture, and keeps cattle out of wetlands. Most importantly for Boni, the gatelike fence moves the cattle around so the soil can recover between times of hosting cattle.
“A cross fence between pastures allows me to overgrow 50 percent of my land. Grass is good; weeds are bad,” Boni said.
Boni’s next goal is to clear old overgrowth on other parcels where he has to deal with the invasive Brazilian pepper.
“My goal is to re-create Mother Nature,” Boni said of his lush acreage hidden down a tree-lined dirt road in Mims.
Boni said information and courses offered by the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have been invaluable.
“IFAS has lots of good, free information,” Boni said.
For more information about EQIP, visit www.bit.do/eqipinfo.