Years ago, the only place you’d find rapid growth in northeast Florida was in a potato or cabbage field. Not anymore — for two years running, Flagler County has had the fastest-rising population of any county in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

To help protect water quality and boost farming as the area becomes more developed, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences will enhance Extension demonstration and research programs at its Hastings Demonstration Unit, aided by a recent $500,000 appropriation from the state legislature.

The effort comes in response to requests from farmers, developers and government officials in Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties — known collectively as the tri-county agricultural area — along with the St. Johns River Water Management District, said David Dinkins, St. Johns County Extension director.

“Growth means change, but everybody wants to hold onto the things that make this area great,” Dinkins says. “Farming provides fresh food, green space, wildlife habitat and economic stability. In these three counties alone, agricultural and natural resources industries have economic impact totaling more than $1 billion per year.”

A plan to enhance activity at both of UF’s Hastings facilities — one in the downtown area and one on Cowpen Branch Road — is being developed by a grassroots coalition of local leaders that formed in 2005, he said. Dinkins, along with Flagler and Putnam County Extension Directors Sharon Treen and Edsel Redden, are part of the committee.

The plan will likely put new emphasis on potatoes, cabbage, alternative crops and environmental horticulture, says Jimmy Cheek, UF senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. New personnel including a demonstration coordinator and biological scientist may be added.

Perhaps the biggest goal for local leaders is to keep some farmland in use, says Karen Stern, a St. Johns County commissioner. With thousands of new arrivals in need of homes, developers pay up to $20,000 per acre for land. Some farmers are selling their operations and leaving the business. The amount of land farmed in the area declines by about 10 percent each year.

“One way to maintain our farmland is by ensuring that farming is profitable,” Stern says. Alternative crops may help growers earn more, said Mark Warren, a Flagler County Extension agent. Researchers in Hastings will evaluate varieties of grapes, sod, pumpkins, squash, stone fruit such as peaches, and even energy crops, used to produce fuel.

“The challenge isn’t just to find crops that do well here, we also need growing practices that are affordable and sustainable here,” Warren says. “All three counties have slightly different needs, but we have a great deal in common, including unique climate and soil conditions.”

The area also shares a common watershed — the Lower St. Johns River Basin — which needs protection, said Dave Fisk, assistant executive director of the St. Johns River Water Management District, which manages water resources in 18 north and east-central Florida counties.

At the 50-acre downtown Hastings site, UF researchers will develop best management practices for residential community developments, related to water conservation, stormwater management and nutrient load reduction in local water resources, says Pierce Jones, director of the UF program for resource efficient communities.

“Construction of residential developments reshapes terrain and compacts soils,” Jones says. “In addition, housing, driveways, walkways and streets reduce permeable surface areas. These changes often directly and significantly reduce water percolation and increase surface water drainage patterns.

“When combined with typical residential landscaping practices, these changes can cause undesirable increases in the concentrations of nutrients and other chemicals in stormwater runoff,” he says. “The purpose of our research at Hastings is to identify design, construction and landscaping practices that minimize stormwater runoff and nutrient loading.”

In addition to the other BMP and low-impact development research projects they’ll pursue, scientists hope to secure funding to build 18 homes on the site, each with a one-fifth acre plot that is specially designed so that all water leaving the plot via runoff and leaching can be captured and analyzed. By using different construction and landscaping options on the plots, researchers can accurately evaluate the environmental impact of various approaches.

The 50-acre site at Cowpen Branch Road will be used for studies related to agricultural water use, said Chad Hutchinson, a UF associate professor of horticultural sciences.

Area farmers are eager for new information and technology that could help them gain an edge in today’s changing markets, says Wayne Smith, a third-generation St. Johns County farmer whose crops include potatoes and sod.

“Some people believe this area will not be a viable agricultural community much longer, but I beg to differ,” he says. “Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties still have viable agricultural interests, despite population pressure and increasing land value. Locally focused research from UF helps their farmers stay in business, and it can help us do the same.”