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Harvesting History

The day will come, says local land- use lawyer and history buff Harvey Oyer, when the idea of acres of tomatoes, eggplants, beans and peppers in Palm Beach County will seem quaint.

Agriculture is hard-pressed to compete with rising land prices, the demand for sprawling gated communities and the lure of large-scale development opportunities like the Scripps Research Institute.

And despite the fact that the county's western lands boast some of the most productive agricultural land in the country, Oyer believes that few Palm Beach County residents have any real idea of its significance.

Four years ago, former Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge Marvin Mounts Jr. convinced Oyer, who chairs the county's historical society, that the county's agricultural history had to be preserved while there were still people around who remembered it. "Our historical literature had a hole in it," Oyer says.

With the help of nine prominent farming patriarchs, the historical society hired a writer and began collecting old photographs and jogging memories.

The result is a 212-page pictorial of the county's agricultural history and the recorded oral histories of more than 50 pioneering farming families.

The book, "Black Gold and Silver Sands" by Loxahatchee writer James D. Snyder, is an ambitious account that chronicles the mucky land from its geological beginnings through the innovations of the modern winter vegetable and multimillion-dollar sugar industry. "This is one of the most successful agricultural spots on the Earth," says Oyer.

In between are the stories of pioneers who braved hurricanes, drought and swarms of insects to farm the mucky land left behind by thousands of years of slow-flowing water depositing sediment and organic material.

From humble beginnings, more than a few ended up as millionaires, like Henry Grady Boynton, who gave rise to today's prosperous JT Boynton Farms.

Snyder acknowledges that he went out of his way to "tell the farmer's position on things."

The book is dismissive of such issues as pollution and the treatment of farmworkers and argues that farmers have been held responsible for more than their share. The 1960 Edward R. Murrow documentary on the plight of farmworkers, "Harvest of Shame," is characterized as a biased account that went "out of its way" to find locals who would put the farming industry in an unflattering light.

The problem of abuse by unscrupulous labor contractors, the book suggests, is largely a thing of the past.

Eventually, the farmland will be too.

"I think it eventually all goes away," says Oyer. "The day will come when people will drive from here to Belle Glade and never see a farm again."