Florida dairy farmer Sutton Rucks has fond memories of catching a 10-pound bass as a kid on Lake Okeechobee.
The lake, which spans 730 square miles in South Florida, is a treasured natural resource, not just for Okeechobee residents, but for people who come from around the world hoping to land a prized fish.
As a lifelong Okeechobee resident, Rucks wants to make sure his farm, which sits 8 miles from the lake’s edge, maintains its quality of water so it doesn’t have an impact on Lake Okeechobee.
Like many dairy farmers, Rucks relies on manmade lagoons that serve as a septic system of sorts to capture cow waste. This allows him to use the water and manure in an environmentally sound way.
Rucks’ dairy has three lagoons that were designed with oversight from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and with guidance from environmental engineers. The lagoons’ purpose is to prevent manure from reaching ground and surface waters. This works by flushing cow manure daily from a concrete floor in the barn and into a lagoon. The lagoons are naturally lined by Florida’s thick clay, which prevents seepage into the Florida aquifer.
As the water is flushed into the lagoons, it first pours over a screen to capture manure solids that Rucks uses to supplement Florida’s naturally sandy soil. The water that is collected in the lagoon (called effluent) is then pumped by a system of pipes that irrigate the crops, providing a nutrient-rich and natural alternative to commercial fertilizers. Rucks grows corn and grasses to feed his cows, creating a full circle of sustainability.
To ensure runoff does not leave the farm, Rucks also set aside 90 acres of pasture to build a rainwater retention pond. All of the rainwater from the farm’s pastures and irrigated fields is pumped into this pond, allowing Rucks to store more water.
Rucks understands the value of cow manure and knows it makes sense for his bottom line. But, it’s much more than that for him.
“This farm is our home,” he said. “I have children (ages 22 and 25) who I never thought would come back to the farm, but both of them are interested. So, we have a fourth generation on this property that my grandfather bought in the 1950s. Our goal is to be great stewards.
“I can still remember catching that 10-pound bass. I want every kid in Okeechobee or around the state to have that experience. I want the fish and the wildlife to be there and the water quality to be as good as we can make it. We’re going the extra mile to assure the public that farmers are doing their part.”