Updated 11 months ago
Florida once led the nation in honey production. Now the industry -- concentrated in the
southwest -- is just fighting for survival.
By Stacie Kress Booker
Robert Grande is sitting on more than 1 million pounds of honey he can't sell -- at least not at a profit. A beekeeper for 20 years, Grande is on the verge of going out of business. And he's not alone. The country's top honey-producing state in the 1970s and '80s with more than 12,000 beekeepers, Florida today has just a few more than 1,200. Most are hurting.
In its heyday, the state's honey industry -- concentrated in the area around Polk County -- had around $30 million in annual revenues. Last year, however, production dwindled to $12.3 million. Brandon-based Grande Apiaries has seen sales drop from a peak of $100,000 in the early 1990s to almost nothing now.
According to a University of Florida study in the works, the going market rate of 53 cents a pound for bulk honey is at least 10 cents below Florida beekeepers' costs. "The honey market is extremely depressed," says Laurence Cutts at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Cutts says lower-priced imports from Argentina and China starting in the late 1970s, along with devastating pest infestations in the mid- to late 1980s, have hit Florida's honey industry hard. "You don't want to encourage anyone else to go into this business right now."
Grande says free trade "is what we want and what we need." But he also says the international honey trade has become a "dirty business." Subsidies by the Argentine and Chinese governments allow those countries to flood the market with cheap honey, and Grande claims the imported honey is adulterated with corn syrup. He says countries are filtering the "dirty" honey into the U.S. via other countries. The end result: a production trail that's difficult to pinpoint, making it hard to impose penalties and fines.
The American Honey Producers Association, a national trade organization based in South Dakota, has filed an anti-dumping lawsuit against Argentina and China. The group is hoping the lawsuit leads to quotas and tariffs, but the process can take at least 12 months. The industry needs help now.
In the meantime, Grande is hoping a deal just inked with Albertson's to supply its 108 stores will keep his business going. If things don't get better? He has a lawsuit pending against Hillsborough County, claiming its mosquito-spraying program ruined hundreds of his hives. A court victory could fund a honey-bottling facility he wants to build to help his marketing efforts.
In the News
Bradenton -- The building boom in Manatee County has one builder offering a unique incentive. Neal Custom Homes is giving home buyers one-year family memberships to Sarasota's aquarium, Mote Marine Laboratory. Neal is one of the county's oldest and largest builders, with homes in Lakewood Ranch, University Park and Laurel Oak Park priced from $200,000 to $500,000. It expects to give away 120 Mote memberships by the end of the year, for a total value of $7,800.
Clearwater -- Pinellas County Economic Development in conjunction with St. Petersburg Junior College launched a one-hour cable TV program called "Good Business Pinellas." The weeknight show will focus on information for Pinellas County businesses such as welfare-to-work and workforce initiatives, job opportunities and product and local company profiles. The show will air on Pinellas County government Channel 18 and on cable Channel 15 in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Hendry County -- Hendry County's 3-year-old Economic Development Council received a budgetary boon for fiscal year 2000-2001: $1 million. The Board of Commissioners earmarked the money for economic development initiatives in the wake of layoffs by the county's largest employer, U.S. Sugar. The company recently laid off 327, socking the county with 20% unemployment, the highest in the state. The council has a year to come up with a plan for the funds.
Lee County -- The Southwest Florida International Airport had an economic impact of $2 billion in the region in 1999, according to a $70,000 study commissioned by the Lee County Port Authority. Cincinnati-based Ricondo and Associates, which conducted the study, said the $2 billion includes revenues from airlines, airport shops and other airport operations, 44,000 jobs and salaries of $885 million generated by the airport.
Mulberry -- Food Technology Service added eggs to its list of irradiated products. The company already zaps spices, produce, chicken and beef with gamma rays to eliminate bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. It recently signed an agreement with Lake City-based Hillandale Farms, the state's largest egg producer. The gamma ray treatment could add as much as 15 cents to the price of a dozen eggs when they reach supermarket shelves this month.
Naples -- In a rare move, the Securities and Exchange Commission rejected a $1.8-million bill from lawyers and accountants representing swindled investors of a bogus Naples hedge fund. The SEC says accounting giant Deloitte & Touche and Wall Street law firm Weil Gotshal & Manges unnecessarily sent an army of people to investigate Maricopa Investment Fund. The SEC wants the bill cut by a third. Both firms maintain their billing was justified.
Sarasota -- Two Sarasota companies topped Deloitte & Touche's Tampa Bay Technology Fast 50 list this year: Lexjet Corp. and Indigo Investment Systems. Lexjet, a direct marketer of specialty film for wide-format printing, took the No. 1 spot with 9,768% growth since 1995, and Indigo Investment Systems, which creates and sells stock-tracking and market analysis software for individual investors, followed with 2,977% growth. To qualify, the companies had to have 1995 revenues of more than $50,000 and 1999 revenues in excess of $1 million.
St. Petersburg -- Primex Aerospace Co. and Virgin Atlantic Airways are teaming up to provide Intranet, Internet and e-mail access to airline passengers. Virgin is installing Primex's EmPort system on its Airbus A340 fleet. The in-seat service will be available to Virgin Atlantic's upper-class and premium economy travelers. Cathay Pacific was the first airline to use the EmPort system.
Tampa -- Sykes Enterprises' new CFO, Mike Kipphut, has started an internal review of all major contracts inked between 1998 and March 2000. The review comes after accounting blunders caused the company to restate 1998 earnings. Sykes announced in September that it wouldn't meet its 2000-2001 earnings forecast, capping a string of missed projections spanning six of the last seven quarters.
Tampa Bay -- Five high-tech firms have launched a co-op recruitment effort to lure engineering talent to the Bay area. Highlander Engineering jump-started the campaign in EE Times, a leading trade publication. The Lakeland firm plans to hire up to 12 engineers before year's end. Also joining the effort are Raytheon, K-Byte, GroupTech and Paradyne.
Florida Aquarium: In the Black
A popular exhibit of exotic leafy sea dragons and a touch tank full of invertebrates called the No Bone Zone are part of a turnaround at The Florida Aquarium. "I think we're rising out of our struggles," says CEO Jeff Swanagan. Three years into his tenure, he's got the city-owned, non-profit attraction running in the black. The aquarium posted a net operating surplus of $10,000 last year.
New development in the area, including Tampa Marriott Waterside, Centro Ybor and the soon-to-open Channelside, along with upcoming eco-tours in a 64-foot catamaran on Tampa Bay, should drive more business its way, Swanagan says.
Swanagan's goal is to rely less on subsidies from Tampa. He says the national average for public subsidies to zoos and aquariums runs about 35% of operating budgets. So far he's cut the 11% operating subsidy the Florida Aquarium receives to 7%. Eventually, he would like to do without it altogether.