Updated 6 yearss ago
If there was one lesson Andrew Duda impressed upon his heirs, it was to plow profits back into land. After their first profitable celery crop in 1926, Andrew and his three sons, Andy, John and Ferdinand, began extending their vegetable crops outside Slavia to surrounding central Florida communities. By 1943, the sons had bought more than 40,000 acres of pasture and woodlands in Brevard County to the east for a cattle operation. The property, known as Cocoa Ranch, became home to several members of the Duda family, and to one of the country's top herds of purebred Brahman cattle.
In the 1950s, after Everglades drainage opened up thousands of acres of cheap farmland near Lake Okeechobee, the sons decided to move vegetable operations to south Florida, where the company's crops thrive today.
The official transition of leadership from the "three seniors" to the third generation took place in 1972. The third-generation leadership launched Duda's national expansion, as well as a push into citrus. Today, the company has major operations in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, Michigan and Georgia, with grower partners in six additional states and Mexico. In addition to growing sod and sugar cane, Duda produces and markets radishes, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, onions and citrus. And, of course, celery: Among 40 celery growers in Florida in 1965, Duda is the only survivor. The company is likely the largest celery grower in the world and one of the largest U.S. exporters.
Duda endured in the celery business when others could not in part by expanding into other states, giving retailers a year-round product supply. But what most distinguishes Duda may be the company's investment in science, says Martha Roberts, Florida's retired deputy commissioner of agriculture, now with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "They have constantly looked for the opportunity to expand into other areas, but they've also been willing, where many others have not, to take on the science that impacts their industry, whether that means seed research or paying for the microbiological and chemical data needed to tackle environmental issues."
Today, Duda's celery-seed research program is considered the best in the world. The company's R&D spending has helped it develop popular niche products, such as the celery straws through which cruise ship passengers sip Bloody Marys.
Duda does considerable research into consumer trends, too. In the late 1990s, with Americans spending more in restaurants, Duda entered the food-service industry. It now supplies Cisco and other major food-service companies. Its vegetable processing plant in Thomasville, Ga., is the country's primary supplier of canned and frozen diced and cut celery for food manufacturers and institutional users. Citrus Belle, a Duda operation next door to Duda Farm Fresh Foods' citrus groves in LaBelle, manufactures more than 300 beverages, from frozen orange juice to liquid-concentrate teas.
Over the past decade, Duda also has refined its role as a broker between smaller farmers across the nation and major food chains such as Wal-Mart. The company no longer grows sweet corn itself but is the largest supplier of sweet corn in Florida. Retail consolidation means grocery giants are picky about suppliers. Duda has positioned itself as able to provide just about any vegetable or fruit any time of year.
Drew Duda, recently named COO of the company's Farm Fresh Foods division, says while the third Duda generation focused on commodities, the fourth will concentrate on value-added products. The company's research shows that families these days don't want gargantuan bags of potatoes or sacks of husk-on corn. So Duda is working on convenience foods -- such as flavored, microwavable corn cobs -- that are easy to cook yet are still fresh and healthful. "Consumers want products that save them time, that save them money and that make them feel good about themselves even though they don't have time to prepare foods like they used to," says Drew Duda.
For example, possibly coming to a grocery store near you: Duda celery sticks packaged with peanut butter for easy kid lunches. "We want to be on that next wave, from commodity to meal solution," says Joseph Duda, president and CEO. "We haven't even scratched the surface of what we can produce."
Joseph Duda also believes the company has just scratched the surface when it comes to another of its new crops: Rooftops.
In the early 1980s, subdivisions and shopping malls began to creep closer and closer to the vast Brevard County ranch the three seniors bought back in the '40s. The company decided to build a town, Viera, which in the Slovak language means "faith." It began on the east side of Interstate 95, which bisected Cocoa Ranch, with plans that encompassed some 3,200 acres. After an arduous 16 years, Duda has finished the east side of Viera, with more than 7,000 homes and 17,000 residents. Now, the company is turning to the west. Today, on land where cattle grazed just three years ago, shoppers bustle between Coldwater Creek, Panera Bread and other retail stores in Viera's shopping and entertainment complex, The Avenue. Already built on the west side are major county government and judicial complexes, schools and the 8,000-seat Space Coast Stadium -- all on land donated by Duda. (On the east side, the company donated the 56 acres for the popular Brevard Zoo.)
Viera reflects the vision of a single developer: Throughout town are pleasant, winding streets, ponds and enormous athletic parks that underscore the family's appreciation for sports. There are few large trees or natural places. But Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida, says he's had "very positive" discussions with Duda's land planners about the amount of wildlife habitat and wetlands that will be preserved in the second phase of the development.
Duda's leaders believe that as an agribusiness, the company can earn more profit from real estate operations than traditional developers because it doesn't have to worry about high carrying costs for its land. Duda can buy acreage and farm it for years waiting for it to ripen for development. Throughout the Sun Belt, Duda today is buying agricultural lands it intends to develop 20 to 30 years from now. "When you own land in the Sun Belt, you're in the real estate business even if you're not in real estate," says Chairman F.S. Duda. "You're earning value, and you can't afford not to harvest that value."
Not all Dudas agree. And not all of them were enamored with Viera. Some believed diversifying into real estate meant selling out the company's agricultural heritage. Barton Weeks, CEO of the Viera Co., remembers driving out-of-town family members on a tour of Viera. "Some of them were a little sad. They said, 'Hey, that's where I used to fish' or 'That's where I used to hunt.' "
Moreover, some shareholders were unhappy with the funds Duda poured into Viera during the first 10 years, as the state's Development of Regional Impact approval process dragged on and the project seemed a bottomless money pit. The real estate division turned a profit only in the last five years. "It happened the way we figured it would -- that real estate was good in the past several years, and it was just as agriculture had been down," says Weeks. "This is why we are diversified -- everybody is going to get a turn in the barrel."