Ex-farmers ply trade in reverse

by Laura Ruane

Former potato grower Robert E. McMahon Jr. calls his new line of work “reverse farming.”

Kevin Erwin, a Fort Myers-based ecological consultant, calls it habitat restoration and preservation.

McMahon, McMahon’s son and two other ex-farmers are reshaping a former farm and cattle ranch into the Corkscrew Regional Mitigation Bank in southeastern Lee County.

Their work includes such farmer-like tasks as land-grading, nurturing and transplanting seedlings. However, it also requires learning more about Southwest Florida’s natural habitats, and making some attitude adjustments; such as leaving certain ecologically beneficial weeds alone.

Restoration takes land that’s been altered back to the habitats that existed at some previous point in time. For the Corkscrew property that’s back to about 1950, which was before the land was drained and cleared for farming. Regional real estate development drives much of the demand for mitigation, but not all of it: Road-building, farming, mining and other growth-related activities cause impacts to habitat.

The ultimate goal of wetland restoration is to support adequate supplies of clean water for both people and wildlife.

“Wetland restoration is a key ingredient to recovering lost or damaged wetlands that are needed to sustain life as we know it in Southwest Florida,” said Erwin, who developed the plan for the mitigation bank.

“It is much more expensive to restore these important habitats than to preserve and protect them in the first place,” Erwin noted.

For the 47-year-old McMahon, “it was a hard decision leaving farming. I consider it one of our nation’s most important occupations.

“But I didn’t see a bright future in it for the kids coming up,” said McMahon, a farmer for 23 years who most recently grew red-skinned potatoes on land he leased off State Road 82 east of Fort Myers.

His 24-year-old son Bo; Robert E. McMahon III; relishes the new challenges. “We’re learning a lot of scientific terminology. The tractor work; that’s what we already know.”

The elder McMahon said he doesn’t miss waiting up at night, wondering whether a crop will survive a freeze or other setback.

After experiencing years when a good product still fetched a poor price, regular pay also looks mighty fine.

“We don’t have a set pay scale for Robert. His costs to us depend on what we are doing and the equipment required,” Erwin said.

McMahon didn’t elaborate much further, but noted that one big job; hand-clearing non-native invasive plants from a 17-acre Cypress dome; carried a $25,000 price tag.

South Florida Water Management District is the landowner for the 635 acres along Corkscrew Road, at which on-site restoration work began in May 2005. Mariner Properties Development Inc. is financing the estimated $6.5 million effort, and will sell the credits derived from the project.

Mitigation banks allow developers to offset some unavoidable impacts to wetlands from their projects, by buying mitigation bank credits to finance the restoration of other lands’ native habitat.

Erwin recruited the McMahons after a chance meeting at South Seas Island Resort on Captiva. Erwin was advising the resort on mangrove restoration following Hurricane Charley; McMahon already had gotten out of farming, and was helping clear debris at the resort. They already knew each other because Erwin and McMahon offspring had attended the same preschool, and had seen each other at soccer games.

Erwin often works with farmers who are interested in restoring portions of their land to native habitat; this is the first time he has trained farmers to do restoration work as part of a mitigation bank team.

“Robert (McMahon) understands the use of equipment, water management and weed control,” Erwin said. “While there are some obvious differences,” Erwin added, “many of the activities we undertake with habitat restoration are similar to the land stewardship and management practices farmers have used for many years.”

A typical workday for the McMahons runs from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tasks have included cutting and clearing by hand invasive Brazilian pepper from sections of native cypress and slash pine; creating marshes through earth-moving; planting slash pine seedlings in former pasture land; and using backpacks filled with tanks of herbicide to spot-kill dog fennel, an overly aggressive plant that is native to Florida.

One of the perks of staying close to the land is wildlife-watching. “You can count on seeing deer in the fields,” said Bo McMahon, who also mentioned fox squirrels, turkeys and a young alligator.

“We haven’t seen a (Florida) panther yet,” Bo McMahon said, when asked about the endangered sub-species of cougar or mountain lion. “but we hope they’ll find good habitat here.”

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