Growth Opportunities in Florida Agriculture
Florida growers and ranchers say market conditions are better but still off the peak.
CFO / Wheeler Farms
President / Florida Citrus Mutual
“Things are pretty good. Most of the growers I interact with are optimistic about the future. We’ve had a couple seasons with a favorable price structure that’s helped us. It won’t be as high this year as last year.
The biggest concern is dealing with greening. It causes the trees to die prematurely, and also the fruit doesn’t size well.
Demand for the NFC (not-from-concentrate) has been increasing over the years and cannibalizing the concentrate. I think over time the lion’s share of what we produce here in Florida will be used for the NFC.
There’s extreme competition for the consumer dollar. It’s something we have to be mindful of. We have a great story to tell. We have to convey to the consumer: Not only does it taste good, it’s good for you.
The H-2A (temporary ag worker visa) labor program is costly and cumbersome so the industry as a whole hasn’t converted over to it. We’re working with our representatives in Congress to make it easier. Everyone tries to hire domestic labor without success.”
President, CEO / Riverfront Packing
“We are exclusively fresh fruit. Our volume is 95% grapefruit grown on 4,000 acres in Indian River and St. Lucie counties. Eighty percent of the grapefruit we pack is exported. It’s been actually pretty good. The supply and demand is really in pretty good balance.
We’ve had our challenges. There was a time when we (as an industry) were shipping 12 million cartons per year to Japan. Now we’re shipping 5 million. We once shipped 9 million cartons to Europe, and now we ship 3 million cartons there. At our peak, we produced close to 60 million boxes of grapefruit. We now produce 19 million. This reduction in volume is the result of hurricanes of 2004-05, disease proliferation and urban encroachment. The consumer trend toward convenience in fast food has not been a friend to a product like ours. In Europe, they have imposed on us a non-tariff trade barrier. Spain has influence over the EU. It would love nothing more than having our product displaced so it can capture our shelf space.
We are for a national immigration policy that recognizes the need for a labor force in agriculture in this country. A guest worker program has got to be a component. The H-2A works for some. It is extremely cumbersome and expensive to participate in that program.
As our borders became more porous, we’ve been inundated with these diseases. I’m absolutely confident we’re going to defeat greening. We’re spending our own money to do this research.”
The problem for Lake Okeechobee is that the human-made drainage systems in its watershed force too much water to flow to the lake too fast. Restoring the Kissimmee River’s natural meandering path has helped, but a solution still requires finding a way to hold more water upstream, where phosphorous can settle out, and then let the water flow, as it did historically, slowly toward the lake.
Environmental groups and the South Florida Water Management District have found an alternative to hugely expensive, government-built reservoirs: Cattle ranches. Ranchers are being paid to “farm water” in what is called “dispersed” or “distributed” water storage and release. It’s a less risky, faster and cheaper alternative to public works projects. It keeps properties on the tax roll, is cooperative, enhances wetland areas, restores groundwater levels and allows phosphorous to settle out rather than flow downstream to harm the lake and Everglades.
Cattleman Jimmy Wohl, who oversees his family’s 5,200-acre Rafter T Ranch in Sebring, is in the final year of a three-year contract under which he stores water on as much as 1,450 acres of the ranch during the wet season. The program pays him $60,000 a year. “We are really adjusting our production cycle to conform with Mother Nature and the program,” Wohl says. “It’s actually made us better managers.” Calves are born from October to December, as the rainy season trails off and waters on the ranch recede. By the time the rainy season starts putting acreage under water, the calves have been moved to the Midwest to feed lots.
Last year, more than 100 landowners participated in water retention work, according to a legislative report. Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper says it costs $10,000 per acre-foot to build a government reservoir; the rent for an acre-foot of water storage on private land averages $80 to $100. “We’re very happy with the way it’s going,” Draper says.