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Growth Opportunities in Florida Agriculture


Ryan Weston
Executive vice president
Florida Sugar Cane League

Gaston Cantens
Vice president
Florida Crystals
West Palm Beach

» Weston: “We’ve had a subpar five or six years from all those weather problems, the droughts, freezes and past hurricanes.”

» Cantens: “We’re just coming out of that cycle of damaged crops. Last year we saw a good increase in the yield of the crop. We’re hoping for numbers comparable to pre-2005. We’re pretty optimistic. We’re starting to get back to some of the numbers we saw before the storms several years ago.”

» Weston: “The price of sugar has been dropping for the last 20 months. We’re going to have very good supplies in the United States and elsewhere in the world. It’s probably going to drop our prices.”

» Cantens: “We’re the largest sugar refiner in the world right now. We’re actually refining 5.5 million tons a year around the world. We’re continuously looking for new markets to expand into.”

» Weston: “We’re looking for a farm bill that will continue the no-cost sugar program. We think we’ve got a good message.”



Targeting Citrus Greening

Citrus growers across Florida cringed in 2005 when greening, a lethal tree disease carried by an insect, was confirmed. They had reason. Harvests shrank. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences economists in January estimated that the bacterial disease has cost Florida’s economy $3.63 billion in lost revenue and 6,611 jobs. Finding a way to combat greening has become the Holy Grail of the industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in October announced a $9-million grant to the Citrus Research and Development Foundation in Lake Alfred for anti-greening research.

Growers are optimistic an answer will be found. They point to one of the largest growers and juice processors in Florida, U.S. Sugar subsidiary Southern Gardens Citrus, based in Clewiston, which is working with a spinach gene incorporated into citrus trees. “We as a company have been very proactive in learning how to deal with this disease as well as ultimately finding a solution to this disease,” says Rick Kress, president of Southern Gardens, which is working with Texas A&M University on the spinach gene approach, one of several remedies being pursued. The technology has demonstrated resistance in the lab to greening and citrus canker, another industry scourge. In 2009, Southern Gardens planted trees with the gene and is evaluating their performance. “We’re optimistic, but we’re also realistic,” says Kress, a Cornell graduate in food science. “It takes time.”

Smaller Farms: While agriculture — including fishing and forestry — is a substantial and highly visible component of Florida’s economy, it accounts for less than 1% of economic activity in the state. Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis put agriculture 19th among Florida’s economic sectors. Between 2001-10, farm acreage shrank by more than 1 million acres, but the number of farms grew by 2,500.

Juice Oranges

Mark Wheeler
CFO / Wheeler Farms
President / Florida Citrus Mutual
Lake Placid

Florida Citrus

» Major provider: Florida citrus accounts for 63% of U.S. citrus production. (California is second at 33%.)

» Crop size: 7.4 million tons

» Acreage: 541,328, down 2% from 2009-10 to 2010-11; 82,577 acres in Polk County, the state’s leading citrus grower

» Orange production: Up 5%

» Orange acreage: 473,086 (down for seven straight years and the lowest since 1986)

» Navel: Up 15%

» Grapefruit: Down 3%

» Grapefruit acreage: 48,990, 55% of the pre-hurricanes level

Source: USDA

“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.”


Fresh Fruit

Dan Richey
President, CEO / Riverfront Packing
Vero Beach

“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.”


Environmental Issues

Ranching Water

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.


Woody Larson
Owner / Dixie Ranch
President / Florida Cattlemen’s Association

“Florida is really a significant cattle state. We produce almost a million head of feeder calves each year that normally leave the state of Florida and go to feed lots in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska to be fattened. A large part of their diet is corn. There’s a shortage of cattle, and prices have been very good this year. It’s still a good value for protein. As developing countries get a taste of beef from the United States, the demand for meat or exports of beef have grown consistently over the last four or five years.

As this drought has got a grip on the U.S. corn production, the price of our feeder calves has dropped significantly, like 20% to 25%, or about $200 a head.”


Dairy Farming

International Links

Each year Don Bennink’s North Florida Holsteins west of Gainesville hosts eight to 10 international trainees who come to learn large dairy herd management as part of the Global Cow program. American dairy farms are larger, more progressive and higher in production and efficiency than in many other countries.

Category Amount Change 2010-11
Dairy Cows 119,000 +4.3%
Milk 2.27 billion lbs. +6.6%
Beef Cattle 940,000 +1.5%
Chickens 10.1 million +2.5%
Eggs $181 million +19.9%
Broilers $179 million +17.8%
Receipts from Cattle and Calves $488 million -2.2%
Source: USDA



Being Squeezed

Ken Patterson wanted a change from his father’s marina business, so 27 years ago he became a blueberry farmer. With 350 acres in Hawthorne, east of Gainesville, his Island Grove is one of the largest blueberry farms in Florida, a state that’s seen growth in blueberry acreage nearly triple thanks to a profitable niche from mid-March to mid-May.

It’s a niche under pressure. Blueberry acreage nationally has grown in recent years at an annualized rate of 12%. But acreage has grown in the West at 52% and in South America at 73%. Florida’s market window is narrow: South American blueberries stay on the market to April, and Georgia and California jump in toward the end of April. “Everybody’s gunning for us,” says Patterson. “They want April. I think the country with the best chance is Mexico.”

Florida’s crop is almost entirely for the fresh fruit market. Patterson, Island Grove’s managing partner, has set aside 90 of his acres for organic blueberries. He also has a nursery that produces a million plants for sale each year. He works with the University of Florida to test experimental varieties; growth in Florida is owed to UF-developed varieties. He’s encouraged by UF’s progress on plants that can be picked by machine. Labor costs about $1 per pound to handpick blueberries, while mechanical picking would cost 15 cents per pound. Patterson aims to replace all of his plants over the next several years with such labor-saving plants. “That’s the future,” Patterson says.

Florida blueberry farmers are getting more per acre.

Year Acres Harvested Yield Per Acre (Pounds)
2000 1,400 2,000
2005 2,500 2,080
2009 3,200 4,220
2010 3,500 4,690
2011* 3,800 5,630


Paul Allen
Vice president
R.C. Hatton

“Sweet corn’s been very good. I serve as president of the Florida Sweet Corn Exchange, which consists of 23 growers in the Palm Beach County area. Last year, we introduced Sunshine Sweet. It’s a brand that meets the criteria for USDA fancy grade. We wanted to ship a better, higher quality product that would get to the end user. The price has been good. The whole country took to the brand. We had the best shipping years we ever had. Green bean yields and price for the most part have been moderate.

Labor is a large issue. We just need to have a sustainable workforce. The current program that’s out there doesn’t work for us. You can’t get all the labor you need through H-2A.”



Breeding Program

While Florida tomato farmers continue their battle with foreign imports, researchers continue work in labs and test plots on making a better Florida tomato. John “Jay” Scott, a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences professor, saw the Tasti-Lee tomato that his team developed find commercial success for its taste, color and high level of antioxidant lycopene last year after Publix started selling it. One Florida grower now exports it to Singapore. Scott’s at work on improving it as well as continuing to breed for disease-resistance in it and other tomato strains. Advances in science are improving tomato research and development. “It’s really exciting,” says Scott, but, “it’s still a lot of work.”

In September, the U.S. Department of Commerce sided with Florida tomato growers and ended a 16-year trade pact with Mexico. The move allows U.S. growers to seek duties on Mexican tomatoes. Mexico exported more than $2 billion worth of tomatoes last year.

Top Field Crops
Florida field crops ranked by value

Rank Crop Change in Value 2010-11
1 Tomatoes -9%
2 Strawberries +1%
3 Peppers -16%
4 Sweet corn -8%
5 Snap beans -3%
6 Potatoes +2%
7 Watermelons -1%
8 Squash +67%
9 Blueberries +46%
10 Cabbage -7%
Source: USDA



Pushing the Limits

Peaches — first brought to Florida centuries ago by Spanish colonists — have an on-again, off-again history in Florida because of their need for chilly weather — a certain number of “chill hours” below 45 degrees. Fifty years ago, University of Florida scientists engineered a Florida peach tree that needed only a third of the 600 to 800 “chill hours” needed by other varieties, and Florida had a prosperous peach industry in the northern part of the state until freezes in the 1980s decimated it.

Now, as UF keeps breeding down the number of “chill hours” the trees need, a new peach industry has emerged, spanning 1,200 acres from Fort Pierce to Orlando. Growers such as Edenbelle Grove use peaches to diversify their operations; Edenbelle grows 50 acres of peaches on its 2,000-acre citrus operation in eastern Charlotte County

Jose X. Chaparro, the latest scientist to lead UF’s stone fruit program, is working on peach trees that can thrive on as few as 50 to 150 “chill hours.” UF also is working on low-chill apricots and seedless, early ripening, cold-hardy tangerines.

To be economically successful, Florida peaches must be ready for the market after March, when South American imports run out and before June, when California, Georgia and South Carolina peaches flood the market. For growers who can deliver in that window, however, “we kind of own the whole market,” says Edenbelle Grove manager Ralph Chamberlain. Florida peaches, unlike those in other states, are tree ripened, hold their shape and have the ideal sweetness and moisture content to leave juice running down your chin. Says Chamberlain, “It won’t be the biggest peach in the world, but it will be the best peach you ever ate.”

Wes Parrish
Co-owner (with his wife, Vickie) / Parrish Nursery
President / Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association
Southwest Ranches (west of Fort Lauderdale)

“It’s better, but it’s a small number. We were at a financial seminar a few weeks ago. The speaker said the technical term in economics is the dead-cat bounce. How high does a dead cat bounce? Not high, but it does bounce. That’s about how we are in the comeback. We are a tad better than last year, and last year was a tad better than the year before. Most businesses in our sector are off in the 40% to 55% range. There are a lot of closed gates.

We started out as a liner operation. That’s growing starter plants. That’s how we started, and that part of the business is off 90%. Some associates we know have done very well with edible landscaping.

One of the things we’re working on is trying to create a wider appreciation and recognition of our certification programs. We’re trying to raise the professionalism of the industry.”


Category 2007 2011
Wholesale Value $968 million $835 million
Producers 869 702

Notes: Data doesn't include woody ornamentals, trees, shrubs and sod. Includes only operations with $10,000 or more in sales.

Source: USDA


Thoroughbred Breeding

Boosting Their Odds

The influence of Florida horse racing on South Korea dates at least to the first weeks after World War II, when the U.S. Army set up a camp there within a horse-racing oval. An American sailor called it Hialeah, in honor of the Miami-Dade racetrack. Camp Hialeah closed in 2006, but Korean horse racing has taken off, and that’s been a boon for Florida breeders.

“The South Koreans have made a significant impact,” says Tom Ventura, president of Ocala Breeders’ Sales.

Ventura says international buyers from Japan, Saudi Arabia, Europe and Latin America also come to his company’s sales and buy at different price levels. “One of the highest priced horses last year went to Japan,” he says. Winners of the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race, came out of his sales, as did this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, “I’ll Have Another.”

Thoroughbred sales improved this year, Ventura says, and his firm saw significant increases in sales of what are called “2-year-old in training.”

Ocala Breeders' Sales

Year Thoroughbreads Sold Revenue (millions)
1996 3,117 $49.0
2000 4,088 $91.0
2005 4,125 $113.2
2010 2,490 $65.4
2011 2,547 $72.6
2012 2,252 $84.1
Source: Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.


South Korean Horse Buyers
(Ocala Breeders' Sales)

Year Horses Bought Revenue
2000 15 $172,700
2005 117 $1.56 million
2010 137 $2.56 million
2011 152 $2.95 million
2012 101 $2.26 million
Source: Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.