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Agriculture 2008

Tomato Farm in Palmetto
Tomato farm in Palmetto [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

The story of agriculture in 2008 will be written by the evolution of the worst drought to hit the Southeast since record-keeping began in 1895. The drought already has reduced agricultural production throughout the region, with Florida commodities sales falling from $7.7 billion in 2006 to $6.9 billion last year.

The water shortage is particularly acute for the farmers in south Florida, who rely on Lake Okeechobee, says Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture. The South Florida Water Management District reduced farmers’ water permits by 45% as the lake, backup water supply for more than 5 million people, dropped to record lows.

McElroy predicts a $1-billion economic impact on agriculture if the drought persists through 2008. “Farmers are going to be reluctant to put plants in the ground,” McElroy says, “and then we’re facing a real dearth of supply of domestic fruits and vegetables in our country, as well as higher prices.”

The Trends

? A citrus comeback after several bad years related to hurricanes and citrus canker and greening
? Mandatory safety regulations for Florida’s tomato fields in response to growing concerns about tainted food from China and recent food-borne illnesses associated with California spinach and peanut butter from Georgia. The new regs are meant to give consumers an additional reason to buy Florida tomatoes.

Ag Numbers

? Nursery and greenhouse products, including landscape sod and shrubs, remain Florida’s No. 1 agricultural crop, with cash receipts of nearly $2 billion in 2005.
? Citrus is No. 2, with $1.6 billion.
? Sales of livestock and related products brought in $1.5 billion, with $421 million of that from dairy sales and $507 million from sales of meat animals.
? Fresh-vegetable growers harvested more than $1.2 billion in sales in 2005.

On Citrus Harvest

Orange HarvestThe USDA estimates 168 million boxes for this year’s orange crop — 30% higher than last season’s. Mild, dry weather conditions, along with a two-week cold snap last February that caused multiple blooms, will mean a 52% higher average fruit per tree this year compared to last.

A Rotten Season

As 2008 dawns, the future for tomato-growing in Florida looks increasingly uncertain. Two of the state’s largest tomato growers, Big Red Tomato Packers of Fort Pierce and Taylor & Fulton of Palmetto, are shutting down, saying that competition from Mexico and increased costs mean planting in Florida is no longer profitable. A third company, Thomas Produce Co. of Boca Raton, is sitting out this season and will decide later this year whether to keep growing tomatoes.

Florida Tomatoes (in millions)
Orange Harvest

Crop Value
2004-05 $804.9
2005-06 $551.1
2006-07 $403.9
Source: Florida Department of Agriculture and Florida Tomato Committee?
“Last year was not a year we would like to repeat,” says Reggie Brown, manager of the Maitland-based Florida Tomato Committee. “Farmers sold the crop, on average, for a little less than it cost to grow it.”

It was a lot of red ink for a business that’s already expensive to be in, Brown says. Tomato farmers face even higher costs for fuel and other items in ’08.

The companies throwing in the towel are large enough that “it’s really raised eyebrows” in the agricultural community, says Dan Sleep, senior analyst at the Florida Department of Agriculture. Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson has begun weekly meetings between his staff and farm leaders to more closely monitor the health of the industry. “These are the ones that, when they leave, really leave ripples in our economy,” Sleep says. “These are some of the toughest times we’ve seen, and we don’t want to lose any more.”

Going Green

While still a small part of the total, organic produce is the fastest-growing segment of Florida’s agriculture industry. State agriculture officials estimate receipts of $10 million in organics of the $7-billion industry statewide. Organic growers say sales are much higher, but neither state nor federal statistics are capturing them yet.

Meanwhile, the number of organic farms in the state is growing by about 10% a year. Also significant: While many organic farms are small, more midlevel and major players are getting into the game, says Marty Mesh, director of the Florida Organic Growers Association. “With companies like Tropicana selling certified organic orange juice, you see larger growers devoting acreage to organic,” Mesh says.